Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 14

(Read Part 13 of the series.)

Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein

Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.

The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion. Continue reading

What We Cannot Know

What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge
by Marcus du Sautoy

Review by Dr Pingali Gopal
(Blog site at pingaligopi.wordpess.com)


Science has achieved a lot; and it promises to do so in the future. The spirit of scientific enquiry based on theory and experiment is the bedrock on which humanity has progressed. The humans have this unique thirst to know which set them apart from other conscious beings. The spirit of knowledge and enquiry has made our lives comfortable over so many centuries. It has its own detractors. Science has given us the atom bomb too and the methods of mass destruction. Maybe, science has also equipped us with destroying ourselves. But, the fact remains that scientific enquiry will never stop so long as humans are alive, because the spirit of knowing more about the world is one of the prime movers in the individual and the collective scheme of things. However, there comes a point when the scientists must give up, put their hands up in despair, and shout,’ We cannot go any further’. There are certain edges beyond which everything is in a state of permanent fog and a mist. The author calls them the ‘known unknowns’. The book is a brilliant exposition of these edges of science which are beyond the grasp of the human mind presently. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 10

(Read Part 9 of the series.)

Rousseau and Kant

The reaction to the perceived unreasonableness of the empirical method was most apparent in the philosophy of Rousseau in France, which eventually contributed to the Romantic Movement, with its disdain for reason and advocacy of giving free rein to feelings and instinct. It was also taken up by those who instigated the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that man is inherently good but that the rise of civilisation, begun through the inequalities created in claiming ‘private property’ had corrupted us. Voltaire, on reading of his ideas, sarcastically commented that he was too old to start walking on all fours or searching out the savages in Canada. They also quarrelled over an earthquake in Lisbon. Voltaire saw in it a justification for questioning the beneficence of a God that would allow such a thing. Rousseau thought it served them right for living in seven-story houses rather than out in the countryside where they ought to have been. In any case, he did not think that we could use reason when talking about God; our attitude should be one of awe and reverence.

More dangerously, Rousseau was advocating democracy in his writings and questioning the divine right of kings. He believed that there should be discussion and agreement amongst the people to determine what he called the ‘general will’. This would then be formed into legislation which, once accepted by everyone, would be forcibly imposed. His best known work, ‘Social Contract’, opens with the challenging statement: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 9

(Read Part 8 of the series.)

A Return to Scepticism

The Scottish philosopher David Hume accepted Locke’s empiricism and also agreed with Berkeley that we cannot ever know that there is a world outside of and separate from ourselves. Indeed he claimed not to understand what people meant by the idea of ‘substance’. We only know about perceptions, colour, sound, taste and so on. If this thing called ‘substance’ is something else, we have no knowledge of it – why invent it? If we took away the sensible qualities of things there would be nothing left, would there? Why should we need anything to explain or support our perceptions and impressions? Questions about why they arise are unnecessary and the answers suggested to explain them are unintelligible. The idea of ‘mind’ is just as illogical. If we simply dropped both of them, we would have no need to try to imagine ways in which such supposedly different ‘things’ might interact, as Descartes had wasted so much of his time doing.

He was also sceptical of Descartes’ conviction of his own existence as a thinking individual and made his own attempts to find some irreducible ‘self’ of which he could be certain. He decided that, whenever he attempted to look for ‘himself’ he could only find thoughts, feelings and perceptions; never a ‘self’ that is the perceiver, feeler and thinker. And so he concluded that there was no such thing. One feels one wants to get hold of him and shake him and say: “Yes, when you look, all that you find are thoughts, feelings and perceptions but who is it who finds this? What is the ‘who’ that is doing the looking?” He also felt similarly about God. We may well feel convinced that there is a God – this is effectively the definition of faith, a firm conviction without any empirical evidence – but this is not the same as knowledge. Continue reading

Realizing Transparency

An essay by Michael Damian

Self-realization is a matter of clarifying the relationship between experience and truth, which in our habitual, conventional view is entirely clouded. In this existence we can speak of three modes of perception or experience. Each of them has a different relationship to the ultimate truth. Let’s begin with the mode where most of humanity lives:

  1. Somethingness. The first mode is of finite, materialistic perception and identity—remembering that how we perceive determines our identity, and our identity conditions perception. In this mode, “God” or truth is basically seen as Nature, or Life in all its earthly wonder, its pain and pleasure, failure and triumph. In this mode everything and everyone is a “something,” a limited and known entity. A good example of perception in this mode is how children, and even some adults, will personify inanimate objects and project feelings or a soul into them. We might see everything as precious and special, but most importantly, things are regarded in their multiplicity. We see God as a great Something under which we are each another unique something, as in “all God’s children.”Love is therefore perceived as a special connection between separate entities. In egoic, finite consciousness we believe we have to fight and struggle so that “Love can win,” or that good can overcome evil. Hence, the tendency in this mode is to identify and split up into factions and parties, where we imagine we are on the side of good. Here we find all the divisive negative qualities of our limited view of somethingness. Everyone and everything gets sorted into identities and categories. There is no understanding of the unity beyond that, even though one may talk about or seek a limited unity of some kind. One does not understand precisely where and how that unity already exists; it is imagined as something—you see, another “something”—that we have to create.

Continue reading

Advaita is not Idealism

Thames(Originally posted to Advaita Academy Nov 2010)

All students of advaita know that every ‘thing’ is brahman. And they know that ‘I am brahman’. It is therefore a trivial mathematical reduction to say that everything is me. But there is a danger here. Some people conclude that the world is an appearance that ‘I’ create in some way; that the world ‘is’ because I perceive it. In this way, such people claim that advaita is equivalent to the subjective idealism of the Western philosopher Berkeley, who said “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi). This, of course, is a denial of the separate existence of matter and this might naïvely be thought to be equivalent to the Advaitin concept of mithyA.

(Note that the word ‘ idealism’ has nothing to do with aiming for perfection, but means that things have no reality in themselves, only existing as ideas in mind.)

From the point of view of absolute reality, there is only brahman. But then there is nothing to talk about! Such a discussion is only meaningful from the standpoint of empirical reality – our everyday world. If subjective idealism were true, the world would cease to exist when we go to sleep and would have to be created anew on awakening. Berkeley got around this sort of problem by claiming that the world continues to exist because it is perceived by God. And again, one might be tempted to claim that this parallels advaita in that we claim that the world is a creation of Ishvara, rather than the individual. This is not quite the case. In advaita, objects really do exist. Ishvara is the material cause, as well as the efficient cause of the universe. The point is that the substratum of their existence is brahman alone. In the case of Berkeley, however, the objects only exist in the mind of God, as it were.

Greg Goode, who studied Berkeley for his doctorate, believes that Berkeley’s last book may well have resolved his views to match those of advaita, but there were very few copies of that book ever made and it has not been possible to confirm this.

Advaita, then, does not claim that objects have no reality separate from the subject at the level of the world. In this sense, it is a realist philosophy and not an idealist one. This is highlighted by the following very interesting analysis, which I recently came across in one of the talks by Swami Paramarthananda on the Brahma Sutra.

Our principal pramANa, or source of knowledge, is pratyakSha or perception. When we see something for the first time, we see it in the present and, as a result of the examination of its various attributes, we conclude what it is. We can call this ‘cognition’. At some time in the future, we may encounter an object. By comparing its attributes in the present with remembered attributes from the past (as retrieved from the memory), we may be forced to conclude that this object is the same one that we saw in the past. This is called ‘recognition’ – seeing the object again. This fact of recognition is effectively a refutation of idealism (which is also the philosophy of the yogachAra or vij~nAna vAda Buddhists, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism). If the object that is seen now is the same object as the one that was seen in the past, then clearly it has a real existence and is not only an appearance in mind (which might otherwise be called a figment of the imagination).

You can read a series of essays from Chittaranjan Naik on ‘A Realist View of Advaita’.

The Carpenters Story

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarpenter’s Malady and Cognitive Consonance –
Rajarajeswari Srinivasan

I would like to start this discussion,with a Tamil verse ascribed to an ancient scripture called ‘Thirumanthiram’ attributed to ‘Thirumular’, considered a yogi who came from the north of India to the south. It is said that this work, consisting of more than 3000 verses formed the basis for the Saiva Siddhantha that developed in Tamilnadu. Only the verse has been taken from the text. A story has been added by me, for explanation.

There was a carpenter in a village, who specialized in making wooden toys. He had a son aged four. One day, the carpenter took his son to the temple. The little boy took a strong liking to the temple elephant and wanted to take it home. The carpenter convinced the adamant boy that it was not possible. But over the next few days he made a wooden elephant of reasonable size using a high quality wood and gifted it to his son. By this time, the child had forgotten his passion for the live elephant, and was very happy to possess a toy elephant and started playing with it, imagining it to be a real one. The carpenter’s father who was watching everything, said in Tamil, “marathai marraithathu maamadha yaanai” (“மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை”), meaning, ‘the elephant (image) masks the wood’, i.e., “the elephant is perceived and not the wood”. Continue reading

Science and Vedanta (Part 2)

P1030150_tonemapped-2Part 2 of a 3-part essay by Dr. K. Sadananda, AchArya at Chinmaya Mission, Washington.

(read part 1)

Analysis of Objective Sciences

 An objective scientist provides a narrow definition for science as that which pertains only to the objectifiable entities using the objective tools. For example, he says that the existence of God cannot be scientifically established as His existence cannot be proved. Obviously the proof that a scientist is looking for is perceptibility, using objective tools of investigation which themselves are limited to only objectifiable entities. He presumes that God is also an object that can be precisely defined in order to differentiate Him from the rest of the objects in the universe, and is therefore quantifiable using perceptual data. If an object cannot be established by using his objective tools, then he asserts that any assumption of its existence becomes blind belief or at the most speculative.

No object can establish its own existence, since it is not a conscious entity. A chair does not say ‘I exist’; a conscious entity has to establish its existence. A scientist, who dismisses the existence of God, since it cannot be proved using his objective tools, takes his own existence for granted without questioning it. He cannot establish his own existence or that he is a conscious entity using the same objective tools that he is using to establish the existence of God. The reason is that he, as a subject knower, cannot be known since he cannot objectify the subject knower. He knows that he exists and that he is conscious entity, without even questioning the validity of his assertions. Continue reading

Creator and Created

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am the light that is above them all, I am the all,

and the all came from me and the all attained to me.

Cleave a piece of wood and I am there;

lift up the stone and you will find me there.

You can find thousands of sayings like this in the Upanishads, in the Gita, in Buddha, but you cannot find a single parallel in the Old Testament. So which scriptures has Jesus come to fulfill? He has come to fulfill some other scriptures, some other traditions. This saying is absolutely Vedanta, so try to understand first the standpoint of Vedanta, then you will be able to understand this saying.

Jesus was born as a Jew, lived as a Jew, died as a Jew – but this is only as far as the body is concerned; otherwise Jesus was a pure Hindu. And you cannot find a purer Hindu than Jesus, because the base of Upanishadic religion is his base. He created the whole structure on that base, so try to understand what that base is. Continue reading

Q. 363 – Divine Grace

Q: Over the past eight years I have developed a personal relationship with a God of my understanding – or should I say with a God of my non understanding and I know that the term God is loaded and perhaps not word enough. I love God and naturally want to be with God.

 I have some experience of Hinduism and spent time studying Buddhism, I even spent time living at a Buddhist center while going about my ordinary business of work, life and family. I couldn’t continue with Buddhism even though they were wonderful people because in my heart I knew it was not the right path for me and I felt conflicted. I returned to my love of Hindu practices because it felt more right for me and over the past two years I have tried to find my way. I have deepened my understanding through reading books, internet teachings on you tube and meditation. 

 More recently I have ventured upon Advaita Vedanta and it feels right for me. However, I have no teacher and no one to ask when I have questions.  Sometimes it all gets a bit too non dual for me and I feel disconnected from the love part with all the philosophy and intellectual explanations.  I experienced the grace of God eight years ago when I was in a desperate plight and Divine Grace is an absolute for me. What I want to know is how does Grace happen, is it Brahman or Divine consciousnesses. Thank you for any time and consideration you might give to answer my question. Continue reading