Friday, June 28, 2013

The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master / Dogen -- Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt, eds. -- Boston: Shambhala, 2013

Among Buddhist traditions, Zen stands out as the synthesis of the best aspects of the two most important early traditions:  Theravada and Madhyamaka Buddhism.  Among the most important aspects of Theravada Buddhism is its emphasis on meditation.  A clear expression of this comes in Buddhaghosa's work entitled the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purity).  The personal ideal for the Theravada tradition was the arahat, a monk, who achieves enlightenment, in part through a dedicated practice of meditation.  Among the most important aspects of Madyamaka Buddhism is the concept of sunyata (emptiness).  Sunyata is a conclusion drawn about the world that rejects all metaphysical views, particularly the existence of permanent entities and the non-existence of permanent entities.  By coming to understand this view of the world, the Madyamika becomes poised to escape the ensnaring attachments to the world.  Meditation is, of course, an important aspect of Madhyamaka practice and the notion of sunyata is not completely absent from early Buddhist traditions, but no tradition brings them together so deliberately as Zen Buddhism.

The synthesis of these ideas is made clear in the writings of the thirteenth century monk, Dogen.  According to Dogen, zazen or sitting meditation, is "the authentic gate to free yourself."  When sitting in meditation for long periods of time, one is easily brought around to focus attention on the spatial and temporal present and acquire an intimate or immediate relationship with the world.  For Dogen, such a relationship is at the heart of the Zen approach to enlightenment.  Equipped with the understanding of sunyata, that all things exist dependently (each dependent on the other) and that the conventional understanding of existence is illusory, the person meditating obtains "wisdom beyond wisdom."  The illusion of the duality of the self and other, the subject and object, is revealed.

In The Essential Dogen, Tanahashi and Levitt bring together an engaging collection of Dogen's writings.  The passages are short, seldom more than a single paragraph and sometimes only sentence of two.  They are often enigmatic, though for someone with a background in the Mahayana tradition, the central ideas slowly surface.  It is both a virtue and a failing of the work that Dogen's words are left to speak for themselves.  Without interpolated commentary, one comes away with a direct appreciation for Dogen as a writer; however, the uninitiated would greatly benefit from occasional commentary.  Levitt does provide a brief introductory essay to the work, but he touches on only a few ideas.  Personally, I would direct the reader to essays by D.T. Suzuki before picking up The Essential Dogen

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Winning the Presidency 2012 / William J. Crotty, ed. -- Boulder, Col.: Paradigm Publishers, 2013

The 2012 presidential campaign arguably was one of the most important campaigns in recent times.  The campaign pitted a status quo candidate (Barak Obama) against a candidate (Mitt Romney) who was fronting a party that was intent upon making sweeping changes to the role of government in American life.  That Obama came out the victor can be attributed to many things.  It is easy to suggest that the American people (or a slim majority of those who voted) rejected the Republican Party's libertarian agenda in favor of Obama, but that misses two more profound lessons of the election.  The 2012 presidential campaign was the first campaign to be waged under the campaign finance rules set by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and it was the first campaign to make truly effective use of "big data."  In a collection of essays edited by William J. Crotty entitled Winning the Presidency 2012, both superficial and profound elements of the campaign are examined with uneven success.

Most of the articles provide analyses that are well-known to anyone who paid moderate attention to the campaign and the post-election media pundits.  The demographic shift in the American body politic and the gender gap are reviewed as is the trouble that Mitt Romney had gaining support from the Tea Party elements during the primaries and through to election day.  Many of the widely covered watershed events are brought into the spotlight:  Romney's refusal to release his tax filings, Obama's "you didn't build that" and Romney's "47%" remarks, Obama's poor showing in the first debate, and Chris Christy's praise of Obama for his leadership following superstorm Sandy.  All of these were, of course, important conditions and events of the campaign and so it is valuable that the essays memorialize them.  After all, most will be forgotten in ten years.  A good, clear record will be useful, but it certainly isn't the stuff that will reveal the true historical importance of the campaign.

The first big change from previous elections that would seem to make more than a marginal difference was the ability to form  "super PACs."  Winning the Presidency 2012 contains an essay by Dowdle, Adkins, Sebold, and Stewart that admirably discusses the role of super PACs.   In short, super PACs are political action committees that are able to raise unlimited amounts of money from donors.  This money can be spent directly on election activities as long as they are not "coordinated" with the candidate's campaign.   The prohibition against coordinating with the campaign quickly became meaningless and the assumption was that the candidate that was able to make use of the largest super PACs would destroy the competition.  This did not turn out to be the case as Karl Rove's massive super PAC campaign chest failed to deliver results for Romney or for candidates down ticket.  The lesson, however, has not been made completely clear.  It is not that money will not win elections, but that is is important how that money is spent.  The Republican spending strategy focused on negative media buys, and while these were not without effect, it appears that a saturation point was reached long before the money ran out.  In contrast, Obama's campaign money and sympathetic super PAC money was spent building a highly "data driven" retail campaign organization, particularly targeting swing states.  Though outspent by his opponents, his more sophisticated strategy was able to turn out the votes necessary to prevail, particularly in the electoral vote.

The employment of data was the crucial difference in the 2012 election.  In an essay entitled, "A Transformational Political Campaign: Marketing and Candidate Messaging in the 2012 Election," Wayne P. Steger describes the Obama campaign's use of massive pools of data gathered during the 2008 election campaign and in the period leading up to 2012.  These data were effectively used to segment the voting public in complex ways so that messages could be tailored to fit the audience in ways never before possible.  The segmentation of the voting population went well beyond determining likely voters and persuadable voters, it was able to test messages and funding requests to ensure that the audience would be maximally receptive to the campaign's appeal.  This is the future of campaigning, and we can only expect the science to be developed well beyond the techniques of 2012.

Campaigns certainly will make use of what has come to be known as "big data," i.e., data sets that are so large that traditional means for storing and processing the data are insufficient, and campaigns increasingly will make use of distributed repositories of data, possibly owned by corporations and organizations other than the campaign.  Computer programs will then be written to reveal tendencies within the voting population that will allow highly effective campaign messaging.  Imagine, for example, that a campaign is able to acquire the records of automobiles owned by a voting population and segregate them according to gas guzzling vs. more efficient vehicles.  The campaign might then match the gas guzzlers to voters who have long daily commutes.  The resultant population likely would be quite sympathetic to a message promising to keep gasoline prices low.  Other similarly devised messages could be tailored to other sub-populations of voters.

That SUV owners would be gratefully receive promises to keep gas prices low would not be surprising, but other "big data" mining techniques are thought to be able to reveal extremely surprising and powerful results.  A campaign that can acquire massive amounts of data about voters and can employ talented computer programmers could become extremely effective in reaching and motivating voters.

And so we can put together the two most important developments in the 2012 campaign: money and data.  The disappearance of limits on campaign contributions means that large, valuable, and privately held pools of data, will be able to empower campaigns as never before.  The 2012 Obama campaign was the first to reveal this dynamic.  It will mark the dawn of a new era of political campaigning in which the owners and managers of our society will be able to employ their vast repositories of data to ensure that their candidates win primary competitions and ultimately general elections.  Crotty's book, Winning the Presidency 2012 only hints at this future.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves, & Spies / Claudia Floyd -- Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2013

Most histories of the Civil War have approached the topic either from the perspective of a limited military campaign or battle or from a national military-political perspective.  Some, of course, examine specific themes related to the war, e.g., the emancipation of slaves, international relations, or political intrigue.  Others focus on the biographies of key historic figures.  Many of these approaches overlook how different the war seemed to people in different states.  The people of Virginia experienced the war quite differently, of course, from how it was experienced by the people of Wisconsin.  Ohio University Press has begun a very interesting series of Civil War histories that recognize the importance of these state differences.  Included in their offerings are Ohio's War, Indiana's War, Illinois's War
, Missouri's War (reviewed in this blog), and Kansas's War.
In this vein, The History Press has published Maryland Women in the Civil War by Claudia Floyd.  The work treats exactly what you would expect from the title.  Examining the role of women in Maryland's war is particularly interesting, in that the Maryland was a slave state that was secured by the Union in the early months of the war.  Consequently, a large number of southern sympathizers found themselves going about their normal domestic lives under what they perceived as a hostile occupation and resisting that occupation or supporting the southern cause often involved covert activities and not open, armed Resistance.  Both men and women could and were fully engaged in these activities.

By and large, Floyd's book examines the roles of a handful of women who we might assume are representative of larger groups of women.  We learn about Anna Ella Carroll, a prolific pro-Union propagandist; Elizabeth Phoebe Key Howard, a member of a prominent Baltimore pro-secession family; Madge Preston, a diarist and southern supporter living outside Baltimore; and perhaps the most famous woman from Maryland during the Civil War era, Harriet Tubman; but there are a host of other women who's lives and views make brief appearances in the work.

Floyd does an admirable job of illustrating how different women reacted differently to the war, not just based on their sympathies for the Union or Confederacy, but due to their station in society and particularly due to the effects that the war had on their families.  One gets the sense that more than in many other states, the women of Maryland were driven to engage in politics because of the high stakes that existed for families living in a slave state, that bordered the nation's capital and separated free states from slave states.  The controversial suspension of habeas corpus by the Lincoln administration mostly affected men living in Maryland, Maryland's geographic location made it particularly important to the underground railroad, and Baltimore's large free black population complicated race relations in ways that the rest of country did not experience.  Again, elements of this sort meant that the war reached into domestic life in a way that was not common in other states.

If there is a weakness in the work, it is that it appears to rely too completely on diaries and letters.  While this gives the work an admirable immediacy, it is not clear how much the experiences of the women who are the subjects of the book can be generalized to the rest of the women in Maryland.  Many of Floyd's women are socially prominent, making it less clear that working class women experienced the war in the same way.   For what it is, though, Maryland Women in the Civil War is an engaging and informative work.

Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up / Raymond S. Bradley -- Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011

In 1998, the journal Nature published an article by Michael Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (MBH).  It included a graph that showed a recent, steep rise in the Earth's surface temperature.   The article presented evidence that the recent temperature was as high as it has been since the fifteenth century.  In 1999, the journal Geophysical Research Letters published another paper by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes that extended the data back to 1000 A.D.  In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, included their graph in its third Assessment Report.  While the graph illustrated only one piece of research that supported the claim that the Earth's climate was rapidly changing, it was a striking "infographic" which helped to focus attention on the developing climate crisis.  It also triggered a surprising backlash from conservative pundits and politicians.  Global Warming and Political Intimidation is Raymond Bradley's account of the ensuing controversy over the MBH or "hockey stick" graph.

From time to time, conservative pundits and politicians seize upon a minor error, a cautious qualification, or a poorly phrased statement made by climate scientists to discredit the growing body of research that has demonstrated that our climate is changing at a catastrophic rate.  Their attacks also are sometimes tied to the work of a small number of contrarian scientists or others with vaguely related academic credentials.  In this instance, the excuse for criticism of the MBH graph came from an article written by Stephen McIntyre (an economist) and Ross McKitrick (a mathematician).  Their article was initially published in an obscure journal Energy & Environment and latter published in Geophysical Research Letters, though GRL did not apply its normal review process before publishing the article.

Since then, MM's critique has been shown to be unfounded, but it was sufficient to prompt the Wall Street Journal to publish an article making reference to the critique.  This, in turn, prompted two conservative congressional representatives to Joe Barton, chair of the House Energy Committee, and Ed Whitfield, chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, to write letters to Mann, Bradley, and Hughes asking for an enormous amount of information related to their research and its financial support, not just for their 1998 Nature paper, but for all the work they had conducted in the course of their career.  Clearly, a frivolous investigation was now underway, aimed at obstructing their work and possibly smearing their scientific reputations.  It was comparable to a lawyer's massive discovery motion aimed at burdening the opposing litigants. 

In the end, Mann, Bradley, and Hughes were able to avoid the worst  possible outcomes of this partisan governmental intrusion into science,  because the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Sherwood Boerlert, objected to Barton and Whitfield's harassment of scientists.  The standoff between powerful Republicans was widely covered in the national and foreign press and eventually led to the National Academy of Science investigating the issue and larger issues related to climate change research.  Unsurprisingly, the National Academy of Science found the MBH graph supported by "an array of evidence."  Barton continued to harass Mann, Bradley, and Hughes over the graph, but the real threats to their work were largely over.

This incident is merely one of many efforts by the climate crisis deniers to attack the scientist who are working to understand the dangers we face with the continued pollution of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  While it is quite valuable to read Bradley's insider account of the "hockey stick" debate, one is left wishing he had included more information about other incidents.  He does provide some detail on the theft of emails from several climate scientists (most prominently Phil Jones) that were made public just prior to the Copenhagen UN climate summit in 2009.  Bradley also briefly describes the harassment of Ben Santer, the lead author of Chapter 8 of the second IPCC Assessment Report (1996). Chapter 8 focused on the causes of climate change.  Its qualified conclusions were that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."  We now know this beyond any doubt, but this was one of the first times that anthropogenic climate change was so publicly endorsed.  The reaction was swift and ruthless from the carbon industry lobbyists and libertarian bloggers.  Santer's work was said to be the result of a "corruption of the peer-review process."  Fortunately for Santer, the criticisms did not result in governmental harassment as occurred in the "hockey stick" and stolen email affairs and the overwhelming evidence of the human impact on the climate has made his critics look utterly foolish, but not before causing him a great deal of headache and unnecessary distraction.

It is commendable perhaps that Bradley sticks to his first hand experiences with his Nature graph, but asking Jones and Santer to give him a brief account of their experiences that he could fold into his book would have helped establish his main argument that partisan political intrusions into the conduct of science is common and significant and that in order for public policy on climate change to be based on an accurate understanding of the physical world, we must insist that politicians stay out of the scientific debates.  We must allow the tried and true methods of scientific enquiry to light our way toward solutions to our mounting environmental problems.

Bradley's book is a welcome contribution to understanding how politics is interfering with science.  Perhaps the best book on this subject,however, is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (reviewed in this blog).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe / Marcelo Gleiser -- N.Y.: Free Press, 2010

One way of understanding the object of science is that it is to establish theories about the empirical world that are most explanatory.  An explanatory theory will first of all accurately accomodate past observations and it will predict future observations; however, this alone will not be sufficient to establish a theory.  After all, given a finite set of observations, several theories may be capable of providing equally successful explanations.  In such circumstances, other considerations come into play.  Commonly, "simplicity" is included among those considerations.  A theory which posits fewer independent elements (forces, entities, etc.) is preferred by most scientists, and so, in the course of the Copernican Revolution, the Aristotelian idea that the universe is composed of two different entities, terrestrial and celestial, and that these entities obey different laws of motion was rejected for a theory according to which all physical bodies obey a single law of motion.  In the 19th century another simplification of physical theories took place when electrical and magnetic forces were unified in a single theory of electromagnetic forces.

In A Tear at the Edge of Creation Marcelo Gleiser accepts the view that the desire to simplify physical theories into a single, unified "theory of everything" can be traced to the ancient Greek Ionian philosophers.  Following Gerald Holton and Isaiah Berlin, Gleiser calls this impulse "the Ionian Enchantment" or "the Ionian Fallacy." Gleiser attempts to "unmask" this fallacy.  He suggests that there is no reason to think that all phenomena in the universe can be explained by a single theory -- that the universe is "asymmetric" and "accidental."

His book is composed of five chapters.  The first chapter is a relatively breezy introduction to the Ionian Fallacy, with a healthy dose of autobiographical passages thrown in. The second, third, and fourth chapters are general introductions to cosmology, particle physics, and the origin of life respectively.  In each chapter, Gleiser seeks to underscore the oddity and irregularity of the universe.  By this, he believes he is able to establish his claim that there is nothing common about our universe.  Instead, its existence, particularly the existence of intelligent life is extremely rare and possibly unique in the universe.   The final chapter emphasizes this conclusion and draws the moral from it:  because we are so special, cosmically speaking, we should take greater care to protect the survival of life on our planet and especially our species.

In his introduction, Gleiser explicitly excuses his readers from reading the three chapters on science.  Clearly, he recognizes that a lay reader, particularly one with only a slight background in science, is likely to be overwhelmed by the blizzard of detail he provides.  He attempts to cover so much ground that he can not give sufficient explanation to many, if not most of the science in any of the three science chapters.  Some might call it a "slog" to get through these chapters; however, anyone with a moderate background in science and an interest in building on that knowledge will probably appreciate Gleiser's attempts to highlight the difficulties that theoreticians have had in developing a unified theory in any of the three fields Gleiser examines.

Setting aside the intelligibility of the science chapters, the general claim is one that seems curious and possibly untestable.  The main thrust of Gleiser's argument is that science has failed to uncover a single "theory of everything."  Furthermore, the  more  we learn about the universe, the more we learn that we have more to learn.  Gleiser concludes that this is evidence that the universe is not amenable to explanation by a theory of everything.  That there is not a "oneness" in the foundation of the universe.

Perhaps there are scientists who have a romantic attachment to the oneness of the universe, but I suspect most merely seek simpler theories on the grounds that they are theoretically superior to needlessly complex theories.  Scientist reasonably employ Ockham's razor when confronted with two theories that equally well describe and predict observations.  Curiously, Gleiser dismisses the importance of Ockham's razor when deciding between theories by asserting that is should not be employed when one theory is observationally superior to another.  Of  course not, but that misses the point.  Ockham's razor or the preference for simpler, but empirically equally good theories is an operational principle.   Granted: going beyond this and asserting that the world will ultimately be amenable to a unified theory is a step  too  far, but so too is making the opposite assertion that the world will never be amenable to a unified theory.  Early in his career, Gleiser was a "unifier."  He seems to have swung to the opposite pole.  He needs to find a resting place in the middle ground:  science explains the world through theories which cannot reveal the absolute truth, but should always strive to explain the world according to simpler theories.  To do otherwise would be to spin out any number of fanciful entities that are no more testable than the most crass religious dogma.

Gleiser's final conclusion, that the rarity (and possible uniqueness) of our existence can be a powerful force to motivate protecting our survival seems a rather weak contribution to the a argument.  Humanity is certainly arrogant enough -- self-absorbed enough -- to want to continue the species regardless of the presence or absence of other intelligent life in the universe, but if it motives Gleiser (or anyone else), that's all for the good.  I suspect the real challenge will be to impress upon people the mechanisms through which our collective behavior is undermining the conditions for our children's survival (or even just our own continued well-being.)  Such an understanding will do much more to address our global political and environmental crises than the threat of the extinction of a unique intelligence in the universe.

All in all, Gleiser seems to have been an idealistic "unifier," who has lost his faith and instead of simply accepting the utility of simple theories, he has embraced a new religion based on an assumption of the "asymmetry" of the universe.  Happily, from this, he has found a new reason to value humanity, but humanity is hardly in need of hightened valuation.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want / William B. Irvine -- Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

In the introduction to his book On Desire, William Irvine writes, "My goal in investigating desire was to turn it inside out -- to understand how and why desires arise, how they affect our lives, and what we can do to master them."  This goal is (or these goals are) certainly worthy, and Irvine does deliver in many respects; however, he begins with too many conceptual confusions to make the work entirely satisfying.

Early on, Irvine asserts that "we are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment."  Some of these are "terminal" and others are "instrumental."  If this is true, then Irvine's definition of desire is so weak as to be nearly useless.  Later, he backs off of this claim to some extent, but it nonetheless haunts his work to the end.  What is missing here is any serious consideration of behavior that is habitual or proceeding from efficient causes.  This is particularly true in his treatment of instrumental desires.  Desiring a meal (a terminal desire) an agent will experience a sequence of instrumental desires, e.g., desiring one's car keys, desiring to open the car door, desiring drive to the restaurant, to find a parking place, to get a table, etc.  While one might categorize these as desires, one might also treat them simple as actions that unfold from a prior decision to go to the restaurant.  The ad absurdum analysis would posit a separate desire for each foot step along the way.  Irvine also fails to examine the distinction between actions and non-actions.  Do I desire to continue sitting in my chair or am I simply still sitting in it?  The answer is probably different in different circumstances, e.g., sitting while the "yeas" are counted in a parliamentary vote vs. sitting in the waiting room of a bus terminal. 

Irvine distinguishes between desires that are born of emotions and those born of the intellect.  The former is particularly effective in establishing terminal desires, while the latter is effective in establishing instrumental desires, but the correlation is not perfect. Acording to Irvine, the intellect can create a terminal desire to "click one's tongue." Such terminal desires are, of course, rare and weak in comparison to emotional desires.  According to Irvine, his treatment of desires follows from most of what Hume says about the sources of our motivations.  I suspect this is incorrect.  Hume famously wrote that reason is the slave to passion.  Reason is able to assess truth and falsity, but action is generated by passion. 

Setting aside whether or not Irvine is correct about Hume, his treatment of the intellect and its power to act deserves a much fuller explanation.  In some instances, "intellect" amounts to the ability to comprehend language, but it is hard to separate such a fundamental ability from other fundamental abilities, e.g., simple sense perception.  Is understanding that certain sounds have a meaning much different than understanding that certain other sense perceptions have a significance?  If not, then is it an excercise of the intellect to understand that the colors and shapes appearing before me are a tree?  And to what extent are simple sense perceptions components of our emotional states?  If perceptions are implicated in emotions, then it would appear that the boundaries between the intellect and emotion are blurred and they may not bear the distinction that Irvine purports. 

Irvine would have done better to avoid the emotion-intellect distinction and examine instead the passion-reason distinction that is made by Kant.  It is noteworthy that he makes no mention of Kant at all.  If he had, his treatment of desires and mental faculties likely would be more insightful and engaging.  As it is, his treatment relies too heavily on a naive hedonism, dressed up in a not terribly useful discussion of what he calls a "biological incentive system."  Irvine points out that we are born with and presumably naturally develop specific likes and dislikes that have served our survival over evolutionary time.  This seems true enough, but he offers no persuasive account as to how we might overturn or even resist these natural tendencies.  Having such an account is critical to the final chapters of his work which seek to explain how people have learned to "master" their emotions.

Irvine's last six chapters (out of thirteen) explore "dealing with our desires."  He examines the advice and practices of Buddhists, mainstream Christians, the Amish, Hutterites, and Shakers; Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics; as well as people he calls "eccentrics."  In each instance, the practices amount to "mastering" our desires, but again, Irvine does not explain the psychological basis upon which this is made possible, beyond noting that our desires do not preclude our freedom.  Of course, presenting an account of freedom would expand the work considerably, but it is nonetheless central to the questions he seeks to answer.  At very least, a more detailed treatment of the ecology of desires as they fit into the various (sometimes conflicting) long and short-term projects which each of us have probably would be consistent with Irvine's overall approach and would deepen his treatment of the questions at hand.

Root of the Middle Way / Nagarjuna in Ornament of Reason: the Great Commentary to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way -- Dharmachakra Translation Committee -- Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2011

The Dharmachakra Translation Committee has provided us with a new translation of the Mulamadhyamaka-karikas, translating the title as The Root of the Middle WayThe Root of the Middle Way is among the most important texts in all of Buddhist literature.  Written by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna in the second century, it explains the concept of sunyata or "emptiness," upon which the important school of Madhyamaka Buddhism is based.

While historically important, The Root of the Middle Way is a difficult and work to understand.  Consequently, one would be well advised to read several works in the secondary literature to gain good understanding of The Root.  It is, however, brief in comparison to many seminal Buddhist works, so a quick initial reading will give the reader a flavor of the work.

The central idea of sunyata is arrived at in the work through a dialectical process in which all logically possible metaphysical views are said to be refuted.  The force of the work is rather like recognizing the validity of both the Heraclitean argument against stasis and Zeno's argument against change. However, the resulting view is neither nihilism nor agnosticism.  Nihilism, the view that nothing exists, is among the refuted metaphysical views and that all possible metaphysical views are refuted does not preclude us from reaching an understanding of what is true.  Instead, it demonstrates that conventional truth is distinct from absolute truth and that the techniques of argumentation and analysis are incapable of reaching the absolute truth.  Understanding the absolute truth comes only after one has set aside conventional truth and come into direct experience of the emptiness of the phenomenal world.

This particular translation of The Root is by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee.  The Committee does a fair job of presenting the work in an idiom that is largely intelligible to contemporary English readers; however, it does not seem especially more readable than the translation by Jay L. Garfield, reviewed in this blog.  The Dharmachakra Translation Committee also includes with The Root their translation of Ornament of Reason, a commentary written by Mabja Jangchub Tsondru (twelfth century).  Mabja's extensive commentary has had a profound influence on the understanding the The Root over the centuries and remains a lucid explanation of the work today.