Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Communication with D.Littrell part 3

From: Dennis Littrell
To: palashm@yahoo.com

Hi, Palash:

I left a comment on free will at your blog site and I addressed a couple of points on the comments section to my review of your book.

I have some other comments on your book that I will send to you in an email when I have time to go back through my notes!

Again, thank you for your book and for enlightening me on the Advaitic and related philosophies.

Best wishes,
Dennis Littrell





From: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Subject: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book
To: "palash mazumdar" <palashm@yahoo.com>
Date: Wednesday, 23 December, 2009, 23:16

Hi, Palash:

Thanks for your latest comments on free will and the "willer."

I think you are assuming what you are trying to demonstrate. Even though what the organism does has never been done before that does not in my mind establish free choice. A man strums a guitar string. He has never seen a guitar before so obviously the precise behavior is totally new; however it is made up of behaviors that have been done before, such as pressing his fingers against something, etc.

I don't think we are going to find agreement on this subject, so I am going to let you have the last word in public. I have no desire to win arguments or score debating points––not that I think you are doing something like that. I'm sure you're not. What I believe is that you have to maintain certain ideas otherwise you would have to reexamine your entire structure of belief, which may not be worth the trouble.

Here are some further observations on your excellent book:

I only noticed three typos, which usually means the book was well edited and proofed. In case you have a second edition, here are the typos: P. 122, first paragraph beginning on that page, the word "word" should be "world"; p. 126, top, you need the article "a" before "spiritual quest"; p. 325, first paragraph beginning on that page, second sentence, the "in" before "infinite" should be cut.

I would also advise you to do some more research on the age of the universe. You have 12 billion years in one place and 10 to 12 billion in another. Most authorities that I have read give 13.7 billion years.

Page 69: "If the 'I' existed alone from the very beginning, then it would not have had any thoughts or sensations…" I think this is a most interesting argument against solipsism. It doesn't disprove solipsism of course but it makes solipsism even more absurd!

Page 77: "Our daily interactions of course are built on an assumption that we share the same feelings, but it seems difficult to prove logically." I would say impossible to prove logically. Your expression is interesting because it suggests a difference in what you and I understand as "proof." I think in fact that this difference is what keeps us from being in agreement on several matters!

Page 81: Given here is your clear definition of consciousness, with which I agree totally, except that when people use the term they sometimes mean something other than awareness. What I call the "Identity" aspect of consciousness comes up when people identify so strongly with their phenotype (themselves) that they fear death and any harm. To illustrate what I mean by this strange identity aspect of consciousness, consider that your entire body is remade complete with every atom being exactly the same and this person is standing next to you. This person has exactly the same memories, etc. But if one has to die, which one would you choose? By the way this scenario occurs in science fiction such as in "Beam me up, Scotty" from Star Trek. Each time a teleportation occurs, the old being is destroyed while the new being emerges. No one including the new being knows the difference! So what is the difference? It is identity, the psychological sense of identifying with a particular phenotype.

Page 112: I like the waves on the sea analogy to describe the relationship between the world and Brahman. It is excellent. But I must caution, as you do at the top of the next page, that analogies are proof of nothing.

Page 154: You write that "the conception of God seems almost superfluous in Yoga." I agree wholeheartedly and also with your further observation that "It was perhaps only a history bow to…" I think God was added to Patanjali's sutras by later scribes.

Pages 174–175: The Jesus in three aspects of mysticism is very nicely observed.

Pages 194–195: On the Zen koans I would agree with you in the sense that the purpose of the koan is to lead the student to meditation. Since the koan has no logical answer, what happens is the very sincere student struggles with it mightily, running it around and around in his mind, which can lead to meditation. Once the student achieves the meditation (which is what really counts) an enlightenment occurs and the student can tell the master that the answer to the koan is "Mu!" or "drawing water, cooking rice," etc. This signals to the master that the student has achieved meditation or an enlightenment.

Page 195: I would also note that the reason Zen teachers whack students with a stick is not because they are meditating, but to wake them up! Typically students are awakened at four in the morning or so to meditate because being a little sleepy actually facilitates meditation. However going to sleep does not. So they whack 'em to wake them up.

Page 231: One of the ideas that I have grappled with lately relates to your statement that information about the individual does not die (first paragraph beginning on this page). I believe that the information does not die and indeed that is how I would describe our "soul"––as pure information. But the question arises: where is that information after we return to dust? I used to say somewhat whimsically "on the ether wind." You say "dissolved in the infinite of Brahman…" which I think is, effectively speaking, much the same thing. I understand that taking the position that the information exists even though there is nothing storing the information is idealism. I always thought of myself as a realist, but when it comes to information I lean toward idealism!

Page 317: You write that "the Yogi can obtain total control over his mind and body" and that "Such control is achieved by sheer force of will power." I would qualify the "total" to something like "exceptional" and I would emphasize "practice" and not "will power."

Page 319: You indicate that the yamas and niyamas from the Patanjali practice are there because breaking these rules leads to "physical and psychological problems" such as "a tying of a knot in the heart." This is true for most of us, but the more important reasons for the ethical practices is that if the yogi does not follow them he will get into trouble with his fellow human beings. When you exist on handouts, you don't go around stealing or sleeping with the householder's wife!

Again yours is an outstanding piece of work that is a bit repetitious; but that is your style: you say the same thing in a slightly different way so as to shed more light on what you are trying to get across. Still I think it would be an interesting experiment for you to imagine that Brahman is no more established that the God of Jehovah. What would you say then? What I say is that the concept of an Ineffable God or just the Ineffable is so much more reasonable, so much more in concert with all that I know and believe to be true as to constitute a clear and highly meaningful difference.

Anyway good luck with the book

Best wishes,
Dennis Littrell





From: palash mazumdar <palashm@yahoo.com>
To: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for your comments.

Yes, I think we can agree to disagree here, on the concept of free will.

All your other comments are very helpful.

But I must tell you that I am not really fixated on the concept of Brahman and I well realize that it is not a proven fact. The point of the whole book was to elucidate a conception of spirituality that would be amenable to science and reason. To my mind, there can be only two conceptions, there is an absolute, and secondly there is no absolute (the Buddhist conception). I do not see any alternatives beyond these two. But both of these are equally possible as I have said in the book, it is only that the Buddhist conception is a somewhat flat and pessimistic one. Most people are probably not aware of the Advaitic conception, and it is my wish to bring it before others so that they become at least aware of this alternative, and can then choose or disregard according to their own inclinations.

But of course it is quite true that neither of these are proven and hence we must always remain open to arguments.

Arguments like free will do not really change anything in these basic metaphysical concepts so I can take them either way, and they provide good time pass. I realize that I cannot hope to suddenly prove something like free will which so many have grappled with for so long, but like to offer my own two cents.

Thanks again for your comments and good wishes.

Hope to keep in touch in the future.

Warm regards,
Palash.





From: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book
To: "palash mazumdar" <palashm@yahoo.com>
Date: Saturday, 26 December, 2009, 0:28

Hi, Palash:<

>

"The point of the whole book was to elucidate a conception of spirituality that would be amenable to science and reason."

"Most people are probably not aware of the Advaitic conception, and it is my wish to bring it before others so that they become at least aware of this alternative…"

Yes, that came through. And I think you succeeded admirably. And that is what makes your book so important. From my point of view the God of the Vedas is the only respectable God in the pantheon of the world's major religions.

I hope we do stay in contact. It will be interesting to see what you do next. Maybe I'll get to India someday...but maybe not as I am getting on in years (68 in November). I still run once every third or fourth day and I'm closing in on my seven–thousandth headstand (by estimate). I think of myself as a mendicant of the suburbs.

Best wishes from your new found friend,
Dennis





From: palash mazumdar <palashm@yahoo.com>
To: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Sent: Sun, January 10, 2010 10:33:01 AM
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book

Hi Dennis,

Sorry for being late in replying to you, I had gone for a long holiday and purposefully did not check my mail.

I am honored to consider you my friend, I deeply respect your opinions and know that these have been formed after many years of study and acquiring knowledge.

I do hope I can get to meet you soon, who knows, I may come to the US also. I have seen your picture on your profile and you look very fit, now I know why! You certainly do not look like being near your retirement or anything.

I hope we can always continue our free and frank discussions on all things under the sun. I am sure to keep in touch with you always.

Warm regards,
Palash.
P.S: I have modified my blog post on free will, I have expanded it somewhat, please do look it up when you get the time:
http://pjmazumdar.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/free–will/ and
http://pjmazumdar.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/if–we–have–free–will–who–is–it–that–wills/.






From: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book
To: "palash mazumdar" <palashm@yahoo.com>
Date: Wednesday, 13 January, 2010, 6:05

Hi, Palash:

If free will were to somehow be established I think it would mark the second coming of Cartesian dualism (!) or something similar. Descartes' "ghost in the machine" would be revisited upon us! I'm not sure we would want that. Anyway, here's why I don't think your argument from "learning" advances the cause of free will.

When somebody learns something there is a change in behavior along with changes in the organism itself, usually a change in synaptic connections and/or the growth of, or the death of, neurons and their connections. That's it. The unavoidable supposition is that these changes come about because of interactions with the environment, both the outer environment and the inner. By inner I mean the brain/body complex. The observed changes in behavior and the restructuring of the organism need no agent making decisions or exercising what we call "free will." The changes can be directly attributed to the organism's reaction to the environment in a strictly deterministic or random manner.

By "random" I mean by chance or accident or due to something inexplicable to us. By the way, I don't think the idea of something "random" is clearly defined or understood outside of mathematics or information theory. Personally I don't think we know what the idea might mean in the phenomenal world outside of an expression of ignorance on our part. In this connection I am reading a book a bit too difficult for me called The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature (1996) by Ilya Prigogine in which he writes, "…chance can neither be defined nor understood." (p. 5) Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977.

Note that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics doesn't change anything since events in the brain are all macro–events, far too large to be subject to quantum fluctuations.

From my point of view the idea of free will makes no sense at all and the burden of proof is on those who would establish free will. The situation is similar to the idea of God. Everything we experience can be explained without reference to a god. It is the same with free will. Everything humans do can be explained without imagining that there is some entity making decisions.

The other problem with free will, as you know and understand only too well, is that of the putative agent doing the willing. You would have to establish the existence of such an entity. It does no good to point to yourself or to me or any individual and say he is the one doing the willing since all of us are composite structures or superorganisms, if you like, much the same way a colony of ants is a superorganism. You cannot point to any entity within the ant colony and say "There is the agent doing the willing." It is the same with the modules or structures of the brain/body complex. You can say that the ant colony as a whole does something but it is clear that the behavior is a stylized response to interactions with the environment both within and without the colony. For the human superorganism it is the same.

In short the idea of free will is something humans superimpose upon the world because it leads to a convenient way of dealing with behavior both pleasant and not so pleasant within society. Again this is similar to the notion of God. God is necessary to our psychological homeostasis: God is a way of explaining the inexplicable, for accounting for things we cannot control, for giving purpose and meaning to our existence. But again everything about our existence can be explained without bringing a God into the picture.

From the position of Occam's Razor, neither free will nor God should be posited.

But psychologically we couldn't get along without them!

Referring to your blog, it is clear there is a difference between a computer and an organism. If the computer exhibits "new," seemingly learned behavior, we can examine the computer and its programs and see that nothing has changed. It is only our perception that has changed. We thought the behavior was learned or new because we weren't aware that it was built into the system. But if we look at an organism we can see that the organism has change in the manner described above

In your blog you twice get to the point where it seems you are going to show a difference between something like computer learning (or non–free will behavior) and human learning but you don't do it! For example you write: "Human learning acquires a different skill for the person, and to do this, he or she has to show behavior which is completely different from his previous patterns and do something completely new." But unfortunately you don't show how any behavior is "completely new." Going back to your guitar–strumming example: it may be the case that the prehistoric man never before behaved in exactly the way he does when strumming the guitar; nonetheless the movements he makes are movements he's made in different contexts or could make.

You also write, earlier in the column: "What I am stating is that the way we learn, our learning process, shows that we have the capacity to do something which is new and outside our behavioral patterns, which is something new, and this is what indicates or proves that we have free will." Again however you do not point to how this "way" is different from a "way" that would come about through behavior based on genetic predisposition interacting with the environment.

Please do not feel you have to respond to any of this. I know you are a busy man in the prime of life! You can if you like copy my words onto your blog and respond in that manner. Or if you like I can post this on your blog. Let me know.

Yes, we will keep in touch, and if you get to California let me know and we can get together and talk about religion and philosophy. I would love to learn more about Hinduism. I hereby extend an invitation for you to visit me, but warn you that I sold my house in Torrance a few years ago after the death of my wife and now live more modestly in a small condo here in Folsom.

BTW, that picture of me is about four years old.

Your friend,
Dennis





From: palash mazumdar <palashm@yahoo.com>
To: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Sent: Tue, January 12, 2010 7:56:21 PM
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for your input. As we have both agreed to disagree, I think we can enjoy an interesting argument on this, though I am quite sure that we will both end up at the sme place! Still, I find your views interesting and would certainly like to rebut them.

But I would like it if you post it as comments on the blog, which would add content to the blog.().

Please do so and I will put my own arguments there.

I am always eager to keep up a correspondence with you as I find your views intellectually interesting and strong, and hence would like to keep it live.

I will surely meet you if I arrive in California some day, let us hope to meet soon.

Warm regards,
Palash.





From: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book
To: "palash mazumdar" <palashm@yahoo.com>
Date: Thursday, 14 January, 2010, 1:32

Hi, Palash:<

>

I posted my latest on free will on your blog. This caused me to notice that I am repeating myself. This is not a good sign! I suspect I have exhausted my knowledge and understanding of the subject.

I also noticed that I did not finish reading all you had to say. That is another bad sign for me.

You are correct in observing that we have agreed to disagree on the subject of free will. Additionally I suspect that we don't really understand the other's point of view, although obviously we do respect the other's point of view, and that's important.

Furthermore as I was writing this I got a call from a friend who is an expert in western philosophy, and I mean an expert, and he once again advised me that the question of free will is a meaningless question. I suspect he is right but I find it interesting nonetheless.

Let me ask you a different sort of question: to what extent do you think that Nachiketa and Yama of the Katha Upanishad are precursors of Arjuna and Krishna of The Bhagavad Gita? I ask this question partly because I think questions of this sort would be excellent topics for your next book should you write one.

Best wishes,
Dennis





From: palash mazumdar <palashm@yahoo.com>
To: Dennis Littrell <dalittrell@yahoo.com>
Sent: Thu, January 14, 2010 10:12:07 PM
Subject: Re: Your latest on free will and further comments on your book

Hi Dennis,

I have gone through your blog comment and put my own rejoinder. I think your point, that we do not really understand each other, is correct. To me, my own position seems quite clear and valid, and I am sure that to you also your own position is quite valid and you feel the same way about me.

Anyway, it is always good to discuss, keeps the brain active!

I have also made a new post on "Randomness vs Determinism", please do look it up.

Regarding your comment about the similarity between Nachiketas–Yama and Arjuna–Krishna, the similarity does not work because the philosophy of the Katha Upanishad and the Geeta are quite different. The Gita expounds a purely dualistic philosophy, and Krishna posits himself as a dualistic God. There is even a passage where Krishna shows his true form, as the Universal God, with human beings being killed and entering at one mouth, and new human beings being born and coming to earth from the other mouth. This is sometimes depicted with often comical results in Indian films and TV soaps.

The Katha Upanishad of course depicts the Advaita philosophy.

The importance of the Gita is in its depiction of Karma Yoga. It thus gives a guide for survival, an excellent guide, and that is why it is revered in hinduism, as it is applicable to everyday life. The Katha upanishad makes no such concession, it is applicable only for Yogis and not worldly people.

The two are thus completely different both in their philosophies and in their guidance.

Looking forward to more interaction with you.
Palash.









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