Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Different positions in Philosophy: Chapter 5 — excerpts

Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.
From what land do you come, O Swan? To what shore do you fly?
Where will you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek?
This morning, O Swan, awake, arise and follow me!

–Kabir 2.24

The search for knowledge has been the most important force leading us onward towards advancement of civilization. When we begin to look at the knowledge that is in our possession, the most important knowledge undoubtedly concerns our own selves. But it is a paradox that this is also the area where we have the most amount of controversy. We are unable to define our own identity, life, death, or answer the most basic questions — where did I come from? Where will I go to? Am I finite or infinite? Is it true that I came into existence only a few years back and will cease to exist again in another few years? It seems a piquant position that we really do not know anything about our existence for sure, and it is only by not asking the important questions that we can get on in our lives.

Our knowledge of the existence of the world too is not based on absolute foundations, and when we examine this knowledge, we keep coming up against dead walls, as in trying to determine the nature of time, space, cause-effect relation, etc.

The branch of philosophy that enquires into the problems regarding our existence is called metaphysics. This may be considered the core of all other systems of philosophy, since it is the first problem that comes up in philosophy. To study the different religions, we first of all need to understand their metaphysics and whether they are consistent with modern knowledge. Only when we can agree with their metaphysical basis can we think of accepting a religion. Other problems of religious philosophy like ethics, epistemology or the enquiry into knowledge, etc, come secondarily. Hence this is the core issue which must be studied. In our struggle to understand our existence, we can define the starting point in two ways.

In metaphysical idealism, the starting point, prior to beginning all philosophical speculation, is taken as the existence of the knower, the ‘I’ alone, and this existence is the base of all further enquiry. Everything else–knowledge and the objects of the world, are studied only in reference to it and their existence is understood only in relation to the ‘I’. In contrast to this, in metaphysical realism, the starting point is the trio of knower, knowledge and the thing known, all three are taken to exist simultaneously and have the same level of existence and reality. The world is analysed from this base.

In metaphysical idealism, the initial existence of the ‘I’, a pure form which exists prior to any experience or interaction with the world, is assumed. This is the position of most of western philosophy. This ‘I’; my mind, then goes on to experience the world. The problem of metaphysical idealism is that, if its logic is followed strictly, it inevitably leads to solipsism. Solipsism is the proposition that nothing except the ‘I’ exists, and everything else is unreal. Once we start with the ‘I’ alone, then all the experiences and sensations that we are having are things that exist only in relation to ‘my mind’, they do not have anything else as their basis. We cannot know anything except through our mind.

Even the things that we experience directly, the things that we see or touch, may be false. We know that in dreams we ‘see’ things and ‘touch’ things that we know are not really there, our minds are simply deluded into believing that they are there. Therefore it may be that even in this waking world, our minds are being deluded into thinking that these things around us exist. There might be a ‘demon’ which is feeding these impressions into our mind ( like the computer network in the film ‘Matrix’) or it could be a spontaneous dream of our mind. Other people could also be simply a part of this delusion, along with everything around us. There is no way that we can show that the things that we touch, feel or experience in any other way, i.e., the whole of the outside world, actually exist.

For example, when we see a red ball, what we actually experience is our mind sending us the information that we are seeing a red ball. We know that in a dream also, we could see a red ball even when it is not actually there. So also in our ‘waking’ state, our mind could simply be sending us this information without anything being there. Similarly, when we touch something, when we walk or talk, etc, all along all that we know is that this is the information that our minds are sending to us, we do not know if there is actually an outside world with which we are interacting. Hence when we take the initial idealistic metaphysical position of the ‘I’ or the mind alone being the only real thing, then it is entirely possible that this whole world is untrue and nothing except I myself, my own mind, exists. Everything else is a big dream that my mind has dreamt up. The outside world cannot be shown to exist in any way from this starting point.

The other position, metaphysical realism, is the philosophy of the Upanishads. Here the knower, the knowledge and the thing known are considered to have simultaneous existence and are equally real. The ‘thing known’, that is, the outside world exists independently of the knower and the knower exists independently of the ‘thing known’; when a particular object interacts with a particular ‘knower’, then knowledge is produced in the knower. The attempt to understand the world is taken up from this trio as the basis and not from any single entity among these.

When the ‘I’ or ‘my mind’ alone is taken to exist first, then knowledge becomes something that exists only in reference to this ‘I’. When everything exists only in reference to the ‘I’, then we must ask how far the outside world, to which this knowledge purports, has influence in this knowledge. Hence epistemology (the study of how we gather knowledge) becomes very complex in the western view, and differing views exist, like pure idealistic epistemology which says that the outside world has no influence at all in our knowledge, to empiricist epistemology which admits of varying levels of influence of the outside world in our knowledge. However, empiricism in such a philosophy is always obstructed by the fact that we do not know in the first place if the outside world exists. Pure idealism, in which the world would be nothing more than a dream, is of course, always hard to accept.

Faced with these two positions, we may ask, why should we not begin from the standpoint of the ‘I’ alone, metaphysical idealism, instead of the trio of knower, knowledge and the-thing-known of metaphysical realism?

The final point that contradicts all such rigid determinism is that of quantum physics. Quantum physics has shown that there is no absolute determinism in the world of subatomic events. For any given event, we can only predict the range of probable results, out of which any particular result may occur. If this ambiguity is a part of the quantum world, it means that it is also a part of our "everyday world", the macroscopic world, and it is only because we do not consider these minute deviations when we consider the events in our world that we see a rigidly deterministic world. Thus quantum physics rules out any such determinism; even if the laws were decreed at the beginning, each event had many outcomes, and there could have been an infinite number of final outcomes. It was purely out of random chance that the particular series of outcomes that resulted in our specific world happened to occur.

Such a concept of a rigid fate, which binds us all from the beginning to the end, has given rise to intriguing aspects of human behavior such as the belief in astrology and other predictive arts. Astrology is based on the belief that the whole universe moves in a predetermined cycle. All individual cycles (the microcosm) are related and a part of this all –encompassing cycle (the macrocosm).

Hence, by studying the position of the stars at the point of birth, we can determine the point at which our microcosmic cycle "enters" or becomes a part of this macrocosmic cycle, and then at any particular time determine where our "microcosmic" cycle stands in relation to the "macrocosmic" cycle as it is being dragged along with it. We can thus understand the position of our life, as some points in the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm are said to be inimical and some beneficial. Other predictive methods also depend on similar logic. If all events in the world were interconnected, then the result of even the smallest event would be directly connected to the course of our life. Thus an apparently random event would not be random, but would ultimately be connected to the rest of our life.

So it is certainly possible that the card we draw from a pack or the fortune cookie drawn for us by a parrot is predictive of other things. Similarly, the lines on our hand or the numbers in our name are also connected to the course of our life. By a long process of studying such events and their association with humans, practitioners of predictive arts like these claim that they have been able to discover the relationship between random events and aspects of human lives.

The argument against this is the same as that which was already given: that randomness is an inbuilt part of the universe, and it does not follow a strictly predetermined course. Each event could have a number of potential subsequent events, and so there is no rigid line of cause and effect. Grand views of macrocosm and microcosm cannot stand against a mathematical analysis of events.

Those who have known the vital force of the vital force, the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear, and the mind of the mind, have realised the ancient primordial Brahman.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.18

Another question that arises is the question of our individuality, that since all or individual feelings and thoughts are private, we can never know another person’s mind. Hence we may ask whether other people are really like us, whether they see the same thing inside their heads as we do when we see a red colour, for instance, or feel the same thing as us when we feel angry or happy. Our daily interactions of course are built on an assumption that this is true, but it seems difficult to prove logically.

Here also evolutionary theory has helped in solving this old philosophical quandary. By seeing ourselves as products of an evolutionary process, we can see that no person is an isolated individual, we are all part of a common inheritance, and in fact we are part of the entire chain of life. All our physical and mental processes are part of a common chain of development. During evolution, each species occupied its own specific niche. Those species would survive best which understood its environment the most. Hence evolution ensured that benefits were to be given to those powers which could best recognize the environment of that species. This ensured the development of the senses in the earliest species and these senses gradually became more and more refined. Vision for example would begin with some species developing light sensitive sensors which in time gradually developed into the eye.

The earliest specie to develop colour vision would begin by having light sensitive sensors which were triggered off by only a particular narrow band of light. When it came before the red colour, its eye would react to it and the brain would recognise it. This sensation of seeing red and also other colours would give it evolutionary advantages, and hence colour vision would be transmitted down the line. Hence our vision and the sensations we gather with our eyes is not an individual experience but something we share in common with all members of our species, and in fact with a very large number of other species. We have inherited the same organ of vision and the ‘hardware’ in the brain connected with it from older species. Hence when we see a red colour, we can be quite certain that we are having the same experience in our mind that would be had by all other humans and in fact by all animals too.

Besides the senses, in order to survive, the species also acquire an understanding of such concepts as time and distance which are needed for their survival. They would acquire such concepts as would be best suited for their survival. The concept of time for a fruit fly which lives its entire life cycle within 1 week will be different from that of humans. So also the concept of distance would be different for an ant. But within the same species the same basic concept for time and distance would be inherited and shared. So also emotions like anger, fear, etc. would be held in common. Hence evolution ensures that our basic concepts of life are the same. We can be sure that the emotions we feel, the basic fundamentals of our thinking and the way we learn and take decisions is the same for all of us. As we have a common mental structure, we are able to develop a common language and understand each other.

A baby coming into the world has these basic concepts hardwired in his brain. He also has the learning ability, which ultimately translates into freedom of will, hardwired in his brain. From this, through his senses, he gradually acquires knowledge of his external world and develops more and more complicated ideas. The basic numerical ability, to distinguish between 1 or many objects, is a part of this mental ability. Mathematics is also only a language, with the numbers and other signs being equivalent to words, and using these words we describe a particular aspect of the world. As mathematics evolved, it developed more and more complex ways of describing the world. A child learns mathematics in much the same way as it learns language. All this assures us that there is a common base to our knowledge and senses.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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