Q. 425 Truth and reality

Q: As I see/feel it, Truth (with a capital T) is a human concept, and like all concepts, is not real (except in our minds). “What is” is simply “what is” … period, end of story (literally).

Advaita Vedanta seems to say that Truth (Brahman) is real, that it is in fact the only reality.

  1. Are the two assertions above incompatible? (I have the feeling that, ultimately, they’re not, because the Truth I’m talking about is a concept and Brahman is not.)
  2. If they are, is my take that ‘Truth is a human concept and therefore not real’ a deep obstacle (perhaps even a show-stopper) to my studying Advaita?

A: It is not possible to talk about brahman/reality because it is non-dual and without attributes (see Q. 328). You need to accept/appreciate this. But of course, as part of the process of removing self-ignorance from the mind, we do need to ‘as if’ talk about it. And we do this via pointers, negation and so on. All of these are concepts and have to be dropped IN THE END. But, in the interim, we make use of them without worrying about the fact that they are mithyA.

The other point is that words are very slippery things and different people can understand different things. The word ‘sat’ can certainly mean both ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ (as well as ‘existence’). Whether or not you regard these as synonyms may cause you a problem of the sort you describe. But the word ‘reality’ is as much a concept as the word ‘truth’! These are the sort of things that twentieth century Western philosophers argued about. Don’t worry about it! Gain Self-knowledge and you can then happily drop all the concepts, or simply use them as appropriate when you want to talk to someone who doesn’t have Self-knowledge!

The ontological status of concepts in Plato and Shankara

Concerning the theory of Forms or Ideas in Plato – and by extension that of perception – we can find an interesting parallel in the account given by Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta. The Idea of ‘the Good’ (the supreme Idea in Platonic metaphysics) would correspond to the highest ontological principle in advaita: Atman-Brahma; in fact, there is only one ontological principle, one primary, or ultimate, reality, in both philosophers.* Objects of external perception are illusory in both accounts. In Plato they are only images (ikones) of Ideas, which alone are real, whereas in Shankara these objects are also just representations in the mind, phenomena, and described as ‘names and forms’. For example, ‘pot’ is just a name, its underlying ‘substance’ being only clay (this is only an analogy or illustration, since there is no talk of substance in Shankara’s philosophy). There are no objects, and no world, having a separate (objective!) existence, the only reality being Atman-Brahman.

* This makes of Plato a non-dualist, which is contrary to the commonly-held idea that he was a dualist, due to the emphasis given throughout the ages to his doctrine of the two Worlds, Intelligible and Phenomenal (or ‘World of Appearances’).

Tom McFarlane (writing in Quora): ‘What concepts really are is a philosophical question about their ontological status. The answer will depend upon the philosophy you adopt. A materialist would regard concepts as ultimately reducible to the functioning of the material brain, while an idealist would regard concepts (and matter) as ultimately reducible to mind or consciousness.

The most famous idealist account of concepts was given by Plato in his theory of forms. According to Plato, a concept (or form) is a general abstract pattern that has various sensory objects as specific instantiations. The concept of a tree, for example, is an abstract idea that makes it possible for us to experience trees, as such. Without the concept of a tree, we may have experiences of images but they are not recognized as being an experience of a tree without the concept of a tree. In Plato’s view, the concept of the tree is more fundamental than any particular tree because the concept is a necessary precondition for trees to exist as objects of experience. Plato called the experiences of trees as instantiations of the concept of a tree. For more discussion, see What is a form in Plato’s metaphysical theory?’