Q.523 Science and Reality

Q: Can we still hold that modern science is far from realizing the unreality of the world, the basic teaching of Advaita? (Quora)

A (Martin): Clearly, philosophical statements such as “the world is unreal”, “life is a dream “or “reality is spiritual” express not empirical but a priori propositions or enunciates. As such, they are independent of sense experience in that their truth or falsity is not determined by the facts of sense experience. Such statements can neither be confirmed nor confuted by sense experience. Observation and experiment are simply irrelevant to their truth or falsity. Thus, they fall outside the realm of the empirical sciences, whatever be the speculations of individual scientists when assuming the role of members of the laity. Further, in the contexts in which they most often occur, such statements are not regarded as provisional truths subject to refutation or revision as in the sciences, but as absolute and irrefutable truths.

14 thoughts on “Q.523 Science and Reality

  1. I’ve posted several times on the subject of science, and its inability to say anything useful on the topic of Advaita, so essentially I agree with you entirely. See particularly the 4-part series beginning ‘Science and the nature of absolute reality (Part 1)‘.

    It does seem, though, that the ‘acceptability’ of your response must depend upon whether the reader is an Advaitin or a scientist! I can’t help thinking that a scientist would challenge your claim about ‘unimpeachable authority’. It is said that the Vedas were transmitted orally, using complex mnemonic techniques, in the centuries prior to writing. But, whether the material is received via ear or eye, it involves sensory data – a seeker listening to a guru or reading a text. All very much within the empirical realm! Also, the claim that they were originated by Ishvara and are maintained and retransmitted at the start of each ‘creation’ is not going to count for much with most scientists.

    I’ve always had some conceptual difficulty with the term ‘a priori’. But is it not the case that statements such as ‘reality is non-dual’, ‘the world is mithyA’ etc. are only a priori for the Advaitin? (For most people, they are simply delusional!) And aren’t the results of any experiments conducted by physicists going to be necessarily empirical – the result of analyzing sensory data?

    In other words, the beliefs of Advaitins are never going to be acceptable to the scientist and the experimental findings of the physicists are never going to ‘prove’ anything for the Advaitin. I.e. ‘never the twain shall meet’.

    In all probability, I am saying something stupid here. I look to Ramesam to clarify the situation!

  2. While waiting for Ramesam’s comments I wish to clarify that yesterday or the day before I denied the epithet ‘stupid’ (‘on the contrary!’) as being applicable to a friend here such as D, but later I did not see it in the thread. I suppose a glitch.

    • I don’t have an explanation for this, Martin. I received your comment via email to my usual address. I thought I had also seen it here but there is no record of it.

  3. Dear Martin and Dennis,

    Interesting comments indeed.
    ‘A’ or ‘D’ being far removed from ‘S,’ may be the epithet beginning with ‘S’ perhaps belongs to me, an ‘R,’ — after all, R & S are cozy neighbors, you see! 🙂

    Dr. Rpger Penrose once observed that a real Theory of Everything (TOE), a term very familiar to all Physicists, should have to include in it Consciousness; otherwise, he held that it would remain incomplere. Thus, we note that even top Physicists do feel the inescapability for them from bringing in rather (currently) intractable esoteric words into their Laws to be able to explain Science at a more fundamental level.

    While ‘causality’ is indisputably a well-acceted ruling king in governing physical systems, it did not stop the Astrophysicist-turned monk, Dr. J. Dobson, in declaring several years ago that the genesis of Hydrogen, the primordial element in the universe, to be “acausal,” once again, thus, establishing the limits to the purely physical laws derived from empirical observations.

    Move fast forward to present day and we have Prof. J. Maldacena, a String Theorist, who showed that ‘gravity,’ one of the four fundamental forces of Physicists, is only an illusion. Come then the Princeton Physicist Dr. A. Hamed who suggested from his studies that even space is purely an illusion — it’s not really there.

    We have had in-between, of course, famous Scientists like Dr. N. Bohr, Dr. E. Schrodinger, Dr. de Broglie and others who demolished the entire concept of a remotely placed disinterested Observer who could witness detachedly an experimental ‘outome.’ S/he can’t avoid being a participant.

    Modern developments in Neurosciences and Cognitive Science literally broke the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back – the laws derived depending purely on sensory observations! These advances proved beyond all doubt that our sensory system, even under the conditions of sensitivity and range enhancements, was not really capable of showing to us the “Truth as it truly IS.” Our senses aberrate and camouflage the Reality (with caps ‘R’). We receive only that selectect information which serves the survival of the body-organism and its propagation.

    How were all such Scientific conclusions be arrived at then, superceding what the senses tell us?
    The surprising answer is by observation (!) only – receiving the information through the sensory gates, but by taking courage to surpass what the mind and the senses say and listening to one’s own “Intuition.” In other words, going beyond mere empirical observation searching for third person ‘objective type of data’ but looking into the ‘subjective’ (non-egoistic) universal first person ‘intuition.’

    And there we see the perfect convergence of the Advaita Vedantic approach and modern Science and Sceintists at cutting edgelevel.

    Is that not what kaTha instructs us to do?

    पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत्स्वयम्भूस्तस्मात्पराङ् पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् ।
    कश्चिद्धीरः प्रत्यगात्मानमैक्षदावृत्तचक्षुरमृतत्वमिच्छन् ॥ — 2.4.1, kaTha Upanishad.

    Meaning: The Self-existent damned the out-going senses. Therefore, one sees externally and not the internal Self. Someone (who is) courageous (intelligent), with his eyes turned away, desirous of immortality, sees the inner Self. (Trans: V. Panoli).


  4. Dear Ramesam,

    Could you explain what you mean by the word ‘intuition’ in some more depth? Superficially, it seems to me that one can only ‘come to an answer or explanation about something’ (which is a simple attempt to say what I understand by the word), based upon what one already knows or believes.

    Advaita says that shruti is the only pramANa for explanations about the Self. This would lead one to conclude that only someone who has been ‘exposed’ to the teaching of Advaita (in the approved manner) could have the background knowledge to enable them to utilise intuition to reach correct conclusions about the nature of reality. Simply using the sense organs to monitor the results of scientific experiments could never provide this.

    And one could argue that, if one has heard the teaching from a qualified guru, then ‘reaching the correct conclusions’ does not involve intuition at all. It is simply a matter of reflecting upon what has been heard and clarifying any doubts with the guru. I.e. shravaNa-manana is perfectly adequate without the need for any intuition. (Indeed, does Advaita talk about this anywhere? What is the Sanskrit for ‘intuition’?)

    Is this faulty logic?

    Best wishes,

  5. Dennis, intuition is aparoxa jñana (I think).

    Otherwise, a good example of intuition is – the moment one suddenly understands the meaning of a joke, but I surmise that its occurrence must be widespread – in science and elsewhere (and it is not equivalent to a hunch or ‘gut feeling’).

    Keküle’s sudden seeing in front of him the hexagon he was unaware looking for (the chemical formula of phenol has precisely that form) is another example (same as an instance of Eureka!?).

  6. I disagree, Martin. The Sanskrit word for ‘intuition’ is, I believe, ‘pratibhA’. And I don’t recall coming across this word anytime in my history of studying Advaita.

    My understanding of ‘aparokSha’ is that it is like a mathematically catastrophic event. All of the teaching that one has come across, whether via reading or from listening to a qualified teacher, mulls and stews in manas until buddhi suddenly makes sense of it and reaches an ‘inevitable’ conclusion. What was previously only doubtful theory suddenly becomes inescapable fact.

    But all of this would be impossible without the accumulation of teaching to begin with. Someone with everyday experience and general understanding would never (barring a Ramana, perhaps) be able to reach the same conclusion because it is so counter-intuitive.

    Kekulé had been thinking about the structure of benzene for years, trying to tally his knowledge of the properties of the substance with his current – and extensive – knowledge of molecular structure. Someone without prior knowledge of chemistry could never have done this. I.e. what Kekulé had was NOT intuition (as I understand it).

  7. Alright, Dennis, I don’t dispute what you say. However, the ‘Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy’ has Aparoxa-jñana as ‘direct intuition… immediate cognition’.

    How do you understand the Eureka phenomenon or exclamation attributed to Archimedes?

  8. In my writing of ‘Confusions’, I have come across quite a few instances where highly respected authors translate Sanskrit according to their prior understanding of Advaita, rather than in a literal and unbiased manner. I have a few of John’s books and really admire his writing, but he was a Ramana adherent and some of Ramana’s ways of talking about things are bound to come across.

    I don’t see the apocryphal ‘eureka’ situation as being any different. Archimedes was a scientist and mathematician, with probably a greater understanding of scientific phenomena than anyone else living at the time. It seems perfectly reasonable to postulate the same ‘catastrophe’ mechanism as for Kekulé. He thought about the situation for a long time and brought his existing knowledge to bear on the situation. His intellect suddenly realized the answer. No need to postulate any mystical arising of an explanation out of thin air.

  9. In ‘Articles and Thoughts on Vedanta’, SSSS speaks of three kinds of intuition: 1) sensuous intuition of objects (indriyanubhava, 2) mental perception (manasa pratiaksha, and 3) immediate intuition such as that of the three states (waking, dream, etc.). Under this last type, the author includes a kind of universal intuition ‘without the aid of the senses or the mind that has been regarded by Shankara as the valid means of right knowledge. This third variety of intuition is absolutely immediate and is quite unaffected by the nature of the object it intuits. It is therefore more appropriately called by the name of intuition.’

    On the next page (p.55) the author makes the clarification that the first two kinds of intuition make us understand things ‘with the help of the mind and the senses rather than intuit them’.

    • Satchidanandendra believed that the Vedas are the record of the rishis’ “universal intuitive experience” and that it is everyone’s ultimate goal “to attain, or attune to, that sublime intuitive experience of those ancient sages” (see chapter one of his “Deliberation On The Ultimate Reality Culminating In Intuitive Experience”). But for Shankara the Vedas are not a record of personal experiences, intuitive or otherwise; rather, in the words of Wilhelm Halbfass, they’re “an eternal, impersonal structure of soteriologically meaningful discourse”. In this (Shankara’s) view the Vedas are not a documentation of subjective experiences, but “an objective structure which guides, controls, and gives room to legitimate experience”. Truth, then, is founded not on a particular individual’s ‘personal intuitive experience’ but on the timeless, impersonal Veda.

      Contemporary Advaitins have drawn attention to the fact that in an attempt to legitimate Shankara and thereby Vedanta to Western thought, which considered Vedanta as non-rational (mystical), speculative and theological in that it is dependent on revelation, Satchidanandendra followed the path of those who tried to show that Shankara advocated reason and intuition, and was neither theological nor speculative. He ruled out shruti as the sole pramana, unequivocally subordinating it to reason and one’s own experience. He characterized Shankara’s method for understanding Brahman as a “rational system based on universal intuition”. Satchidanadendra’s emphasis, contra Shankara, was on intuition and rational inquiry and the subordination of the authority of shruti to these modes of inquiry.

      • 1. “the record of the rishis’ universal intuitive experience”
        2.”Truth, then, is founded not on a particular individual’s ‘personal intuitive experience’ but on the timeless, impersonal Veda”

        3. ‘Satchidanadendra’s emphasis, contra Shankara,…Satchidanandendra followed the path of those who tried to show that Shankara advocated reason and intuition,

        a) Isn’t there an equivalence between 1 and 2?
        b) Is there not a contradiction within sentence 3?

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