Q: I am struggling to reconcile the empirical account of what may be called ‘creation’ (the Big Bang, followed by billions of years of mechanically unfolding interactions with no sense of self, until the absurdly *recent* emergence of consciousness after further millions of years of blind evolution) with the advaitic concept of ‘creation’ (the absolute Being, timeless and changeless, manifesting in Itself as experience).
A: The ‘bottom line’ of Advaita is that there has never been any ‘creation’. There is only Brahman. Everything is Brahman. You are Brahman. The ‘universe’ is simply a ‘form’ of Brahman, to which you have given ‘names’ implying that there are separately existing entities.
The scriptures (from which Advaita derives) certainly give ‘empirical accounts’ of a creation. But these are interim explanations only to satisfy the enquirer temporarily until ready to accept the truth.
Science does attempt to rationalize consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, but it is doomed to fail because it cannot objectify the ultimate subject. See my article on ‘Consciousness – Not Such a Hard Problem’ beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/consciousness-not-such-a-hard-problem-1-of-2/. Also https://www.advaita-vision.org/science-and-consciousness/. Science in general is intrinsically unable to address the problems dealt with by Advaita. See my 4-part article on ‘Science and the nature of absolute reality’ beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/science-and-the-nature-of-absolute-reality-part-1/, which may contain useful pointers. And the 3-part article by Dr. Sadananda beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/science-and-vedanta-part-1/.
Q: When I awaken from deep sleep, my experience is indeed consistent with the advaitic concept; from pure darkness and silence, suddenly there emerges a world of sensations and forms that are presented to me, consciousness itself. But the *content* of those sensations/forms is strongly suggestive of the empirical account of creation! That is, the intellect analyzes regularities and patterns within the stream of experience, and concludes they constitute evidence for the empirical model. When attention is directed towards the stars in the sky, for example, their wavelengths are all consistent with the Big Bang, the fossil record is consistent with the late emergence of conscious beings, and so forth.
A: You say that ‘there emerges…’ when you wake up. The scriptures say that it is your mind that separates out the forms and names them. And these are bound to correspond with what you have learned. Imagine waking up from your first sleep after you were born (empirically speaking of course!). Would you not have simply seen an undifferentiated field and obviously not named anything? The scriptural ‘explanation’ is referred to as vācārambhaṇa śruti. I addressed this briefly in my answer to Q. 73 on ‘Language and Reality’ and Q. 131 ‘Is there room for individuality in Brahman?’ (just checked – I’m afraid I only did this in the extended answers in my book ‘Answers… to the Difficult Questions’). And Q. 207 ‘On the Changelessness of Brahman’.
Here is an extremely brief explanation from my book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’:
The Chandogya Upanishad (6.1.4 – 6) says that any product is only a new word: “just as, through a single clod of clay, all that is made of clay would become known, for all modification is but name based upon words and the clay alone is real…“ (This is known as the vācārambhaṇa shruti – meaning ‘depending on mere words or some merely verbal difference’ – and is a very important text in Advaita.) The making of the pot is simply changing the form of the clay and giving it a new name. In the same way, then, when the world and the jīva come into being, all that is happening is that brahman is acquiring new forms and new names to go with them. But, before, during and after, all that actually exists is brahman.
That, incidentally (‘A-U-M’), is the book you should read if you want to understand all of this topic. It is the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad and Gauḍapāda’s kārikā-s that give the ‘final explanation’ of Advaita and my book ‘A-U-M’ attempts to explain them as simply as possible.
Q: My question, in a few forms, is as follows: if all of reality is a sea of consciousness with no beginning or end in which waves of experience appear and disappear, then why, upon examining the waves in detail, does it inescapably seem to be the case that this sea depends upon a material object for its existence? Why does investigation into the waves of consciousness by the intellect reveal a world of lawlike predictability, which perfectly aligns with materialism and the empirical origins of matter and energy, rather than the spontaneous moment-to-moment manifestation of Brahman as experience in all its variations? In short, why does Brahman only present experiences that are within the bounds of physical science, if the physical world depends upon consciousness and not the other way around?
A: Not sure what you mean by ‘waves of experience’. In the ocean-wave metaphor, everything is only ever water. From the vantage point of a wave, obviously other waves are going to look different. I.e. to go back to the vācārambhaṇa explanation, each of the waves has a different form and we can, of course, allocate different names. But there is still only water.
And I don’t understand what you mean by the ‘sea depending upon a material object’.
The lawfulness of everything is attributed to Īśvara in another interim explanation of Advaita. Īśvara is also responsible for administering the karma that ensures that we are reborn into a life that enables us to work through the accrued saṃskāra from all of our past actions. The world cannot behave in a way that contradicts those laws. (Science has certainly discovered some of those laws and will no doubt discover more.) But these explanations are interim, and are rescinded as we become more advanced. In reality there are no jīva-s, no world, no scientists or science etc. There is only Brahman.
Q: Thank you for this answer. In some ways, advaita is very simple, almost naively simple; I kept thinking back to my first-person experience, and noting how it truly does appear in consciousness as a sea of phenomena, with discrete delineations between apparent objects overlaid thereupon by the mind. This sea is infinitely ‘close’ to me, even though it includes space, and is always ‘now’ although it includes memories and anticipations. And I am always here watching it all. Part of what I watch is science, and I see now how science (like all activity) belongs to the delineated overlay, not the watching of it. It’s not that the overlaid categories are false; they really do work at predicting variables within the phenomenal world, and can even provide insight into how it originated in space and time, but not how it arises in consciousness. Is this a useful way of making sense of things?
P.S. I have a recommendation for your own interest, if it seems appropriate. There is a little-known philosopher named Arnold Zuboff who has formulated a series of arguments for something called universalism, namely the idea that all conscious beings are the same conscious being–or as he would put it, all experiences are ‘mine’.
He does not approach this with any preferred model of reality (I believe he is a functionalist about the mind), but peripherally and vaguely mentions Hinduism as an example of another way of getting to the same place. A good encapsulation of his thesis can be found in his paper “One self: the logic of experience,” which was convincing to my mind even before I discovered advaita Vedanta, and remains a helpful way of conceptualizing the oneness of atman (as opposed to each person carrying around their own personal atman).
A: What you describe is a good explanation of the ‘witness’ concept in Advaita. It’s a tricky concept, since it cannot be non-dual Consciousness (Brahman) as there can be nothing else to witness nor any mechanism (pramāṇa) for accessing knowledge about anything. So it has to ‘use’ the mind and senses, which logically have to be part of the ‘sea’ that is witnessed.
Someone posted several references regarding ‘witness’ a few days ago – https://www.advaita-vision.org/q-498-brahman-and-appearance/#comment-9350. I couldn’t find the Gupta article. The Fort article is from researchgate like the paper you recommend below and requires registration in order to download. There is a review of the Gupta book at https://www.advaita-academy.org/book/the-disinterested-witness-a-fragment-of-advaita-vendanta-phenomenology/. Having once tried to read her book on Vedānta Paribhāsā, I wouldn’t even attempt it!
If you can email the Zuboff article, I will certainly have a look although, since I have so many Advaita books and papers to read, I don’t usually bother with any other tradition or philosophy. There is a hint of solipsism in your description which, although accepted by one or two later Advaitins, is not accepted by Shankara.