Probative and Imaginative Modes of Engagement in Buddhism and Process Thought

At face value, Alfred North Whitehead’s Process thought and the view of Madhyamaka Buddhists seem to characterize reality in diametrically opposed manners.

Whitehead’s view, that all events go through a process of “concrescence” culminating in a final satisfaction that passes into objective immortality, seems to contradict the Buddha’s teaching that all conditioned things, which are impermanent and without self, are dissatisfying. Whitehead characterizes the process of becoming as an unceasing, cumulative process of achieving ever-inclusive yet transcendent standpoints, while Buddhists characterize the process of becoming as immanent to a beginningless cycle of birth, life, decay and death based on, driven by and leading back to ignorance and suffering. These differing accounts of reality could not seem farther from each other.

But I see no issue in holding them together; they just cannot be held alone independently of each other, nor held together simultaneously in a new synthetic system, but rather seen as disclosing and abstracting from different but indivisible aspects of the same reality.

Our engagement with reality can proceed in two modes:
a probative mode and an imaginative mode.

The probative mode of engagement focuses on a minimal set of regions in the experiential and memetic continuum in order to ascertain certain truths from existent things. Discernment and analysis are the main features of the probative mode of engagement, and disclosure of the Principle of Open-Emptiness through the analytically discerning power of wisdom or reason can be said to be the highest exemplification of the probative mode of engagement, since there is nothing beyond open-emptiness that can be probed.

The imaginative mode of engagement brings together disparate elements in the experiential and memetic continuum under the auspices of a guiding, unifying perspective, realizing a real expression of the spontaneously creative nature inherent to every event. Speculation and synthesis are the main features of the imaginative mode of engagement, and realization of the Principle of Inclusive Transcendence through a speculative adventure in creative synthesis can be said to be the highest exemplification of the imaginative mode of engagement, because it not only instantiates itself as, but recognizes itself to be, a real expression of the creative advance into novelty.

If we only operate in one mode, whether probative or imaginative, and assume it to be the only standpoint from which to engage with reality, our views will be necessarily partial and incomplete. But neither can we operate in both modes simultaneously, since they are characterized by mutually exclusive, polar opposite dispositions. And there is no “third” mode of engagement that cannot be eventually reduced to an instance of one or the other mode, probative or imaginative. The simple truth is that they are two distinct yet non-contradictory aspects of the same, indivisible reality.

We can illustrate the difference between these two modes of engagement with a very simple and fun analogy: blowing bubbles. Assuming you are by yourself, in order to witness bubbles floating in space, you have to blow them from a bubble-blowing apparatus. When you are blowing bubbles you are not witnessing them, and when you are witnessing bubbles you are not blowing them, and the degree of bubbles you have to witness is usually proportionate to the degree to which you spent time blowing them. At no point could you blow bubbles and witness them at the same time, at least not at their fullest measure. In order to see more bubbles in the same amount of time you can accelerate your rate of production of bubbles in order to produce more of them to witness. You can also cooperate with a friend who can blow them for you and for whom you can blow bubbles in turn, taking turns with either bubble-blowing or bubble-watching.

The point of this illustration is to show how the phenomenal reality of enjoying bubbles requires two different actions driven by their respective modes of engagement: a probative mode that helps blow bubbles methodically and procedurally, and an imaginative mode that helps witness them all within the unified perspective of a single visionary experience. Both of these modes are necessary for this event to happen and truly characterize an integral part of the event, but neither mode happens simultaneously in the same subject and there is no “third” mode of engagement that helps to mediate the relationship between the two since the only thing that happens in the space between after you put the bubble blower down and before you take a look at the bubbles blown is a shift in your perspective from operating in the probative mode to operating in the imaginative mode. This is possible because these two modes are not different “things” but interdependent and mutually presupposing functions of the same reality, and for this reason they require no assistance from a third-party mediator for one to pass on to the other.

The Buddhist view of reality, especially when seen through the lens of the phenomeno-logical positivism of Abhidharma and negative dialectics of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, makes nearly exclusive use of the probative mode of engagement, while Whitehead’s Process thought, with its most sophisticated exposition in his magnum opus, exemplifies the imaginative mode of engagement. Buddhist masters like Nāgārjuna disclose through probative analysis the fact that “Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without cause: Never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen” (MMK 1.1.), while accomplished Process Philosophers like A.N. Whitehead imaginatively synthesize a perspective in which it is realized that “The many become one, and are increased by one.,” and that “In their natures, entities are disjunctively ‘many’ in process of passage into conjunctive unity. (PR, 21). It is not that Buddhists can’t engage in imaginative synthesis (they certainly do when it comes to contemplative and yogic practices) or that Whitehead can’t engage in probative analysis (he certainly does as a mathematical physicist), but that when it comes to characterizing the structure and nature of reality as a whole, they have obviously differing, preferred modes of engagement that are peculiarly suitable to fulfilling their different practical aims.

The two traditions of Buddhism and Process can only be contradictory if the two modes of engagement upon which they depend are contradictory, which we have established with our bubble-blowing analogy that they are not: probative and imaginative modes of engagement are different but complimentary aspects of the same indivisible reality. And since neither tradition oversteps the bounds of its own preferred mode of engagement when it comes to revealing the nature and structure of reality, there is not much contested overlap. At worst, the Buddhist and Process views are indifferent but not opposed with respect to each other. At best, this ensures their relative autonomy from each other, affording them the possibility of coming together in consummated communion as each reciprocally subjects the other to one’s own procedure: if Buddhists disclose the open-emptiness of Process Philosophy, this clears space for ever more inclusively transcendent perspectives to be realized by allowing the mind to free up latent resources afforded to us by the extensive continuum we all share in common, and if Process Philosophers inclusively transcend the insight offered by Buddhists then they too can disclose open-emptiness for themselves by recognizing the dependently originated nature of its concepts and of the mind which apprehends those concepts.

Far from being contrary to one another, these two traditions can enlist each other as part their own soteriological projects, maximizing the overall efficacy of both of their missionary aspirations: the Process philosopher’s mission to liberate all thought from falling prey to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and the Bodhisattva’s mission to help sentient beings become liberated from the ignorance that causes them suffering.

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