Q.520 Perception and the witness

Q: How can the mind perceive something which is outside of time, when the mind itself is caught in time like a prisoner? Perception in itself is a movement in time so how can mind even claim to perceive the concept of Brahman and say that Brahman is eternal?

A: The mind cannot perceive anything ‘outside of time’. As you say, perception occurs within time (and space). And, more to the point, that which you perceive is also within time and space. Thus, you can never perceive Brahman. But conceptions are not quite the same. The concept itself is in the mind, which is also limited. But what is conceived is not limited. You can conceive of a unicorn with no problem at all, even though you also know that they do not really exist. Scientists also conceived of black holes, long before any proof was found for their existence – and still no one has ‘really’ perceived such a thing.

But perhaps the simplest way of thinking about it is to consider deeply who you actually are. It is possible to eliminate body, sense organs, mind, and anything else that you can think of as ‘not I’. But it is not possible to eliminate the one who is doing this. There has to be an ‘ultimate subject’ after everything else has been eliminated. That is who you really are and that is Brahman.

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Language and Color

Those people who regularly read my articles will know that, although my educational background is that of a scientist, I frequently criticize science in respect of its inability to say anything useful about the nature of reality. Because science can only operate by virtue of a subject making observations on an object, it only has validity in the empirical realm (vyavahAra). Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that science can sometimes throw light upon the thorny topics that we frequently encounter in advaita.  An obvious example of this is the findings of Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner regarding free will, about which I have written several times. Accordingly, I was very interested to hear recently (on a BBC Horizon program about how we perceive color) that scientists have carried out experiments which demonstrate that language affects the way in which we see the world.

I did not expect to see anything relating to advaita in the program but, when they described an experiment concerning the Himba tribe of northern Namibia, it quickly became clear that this was relevant to the vAchArambhaNa sutras from the Chandogya Upanishad.  

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Q.516 World outside of perception

Q: According to science, there was a world prior to humans where there were no living, conscious things. If nothing can exist independently of consciousness like Advaita suggests, then how could there have been a world prior to a perceiver? If there was no sentient being to experience the Big Bang, how could it have possibly existed?

A: Your questions relate to the apparent creation. The final teaching of Advaita is that there is no creation – there is only the non-dual Brahman. This means that the entire teaching of Advaita is interim only since it takes place in what is only empirical reality.

Having said this, the traditional teaching says that the creation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe is ‘managed’ by Ishvara, using the ‘power’ of mAyA. This means that He governs all of the laws that relate to creation and the jIva-s who inhabit it. Now you have to realize that science has ‘advanced’ significantly since the time of the Vedas. While they speak of the raw elements being space, earth, water, fire and air, we have a somewhat more complex cosmology! And I don’t think it is particularly fruitful to try to map one onto the other. Science can never explain Consciousness so is of no value in trying to understand the nature of reality.

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Swami Dayananda Interview (cont)

The following is the continuation of an interview with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, conducted by John LeKay for Nonduality Magazine. That site is no longer available and the article was submitted by Dhanya. It is in three parts. Read Part 1

NDM: An Indian sage once said, “No learning or knowledge of scriptures is necessary to know the self, as no man requires a mirror to see himself.”     

            Swamiji: He does require a mirror to see his face. No man requires a mirror to find out whether he exists or not, correct. But if he wants to see his face, he requires a mirror.           

            I have no question about myself whether I exist or not. I don’t have a doubt. I don’t need any mirror. Even my eyes and ears, nothing I require, because I exist and therefore I use my eyes. I exist and therefore I use my mind.

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Rationalism and metaphysics

How do Vedantins argue against Sam Harris’ comment on spirituality?

If Sam Harris defends rationality the way he does, he appears not to be quite reasonable or wise. He defines himself as an atheist (though he seems now to want to distance himself from that epithet), and such posturing is dogmatic in the way ‘agnostic’ is not.

His defense of rationality is flawed in other respects, and he should realize that; first, apart from science, there is feeling and emotion, fundamental and definitory of man the way he is constituted. Second, modern science does not have all the answers even within its own field of expertise – in any area.

The strictures SH has with respect of religion and the religions (their in-fights, rivalries, etc.) are widely shared by many people, and particularly in Advaita Vedanta, though, it must be said, religion has to 1) be accepted as being an attraction and consolation for the multitudes – a given fact, 2) it can be an intermediary step towards real knowledge of the reality of the world and us (as Iswara is with respect to nirguna Brahman), and, finally, 3) its aspects of surrender, love, participation, and esthetic beauty cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Neuroscience is still a science in its cradle. Not only does it lack many answers related to the brain and its functions, but some of its unknowns are insurmountable, such as what is the nature of consciousness (the ‘hard problem’) as taken from its own perspective. Consciousness or awareness cannot be explained by empirical science; it will always be a purely subjective experience (including objectless consciousness), an ultimate, irrefutable, and irreducible fact.

From the viewpoint of traditional Advaita (Shankara and Gaudapada primarily), there is no reality other than Consciousness (Atman-Brahman – which is/are just names or symbols). Phenomena are the way Consciousness or Atman manifests itself (a sort of play- maya). Multiplicity, space, time, and causality are illusory – that is, from the higher perspective, while they seem to be real from the lower, empirical one.

Empirical scientists have no truck, no real interest, in any of the above. They cannot touch it. Paul King, a prominent neuroscientist, wrote this not long ago in Quora:

“Ultimately, the question of whether or not subjective experience is an irreducible fact may come down to metaphysical stance and not anything that can be “decided” with a rational process.”

Why can’t science explain consciousness?

SL (a contributor to Qwora) & M (Martin)

SL. Consciousness is the most foundational pre-requisite for science.

M. This is obvious, as also that consciousness is a pre-requisite for all human transactions – language, literature, etc., etc.

SL. I believe that consciousness should be included as a part of science and not as something separate.

M.  No, because consciousness is a metaphysical entity not amenable to scientific (empirical) investigation, which is quantitative and measurable..

SL. … we ourselves are part of that universe, and our experience is a tiny fragment of the experience of the larger universe around us.

(Qwoting) “What we call ‘experiences’ is usually equated with the experiential phenomena – with the experiential contents as such – again, with what exists in being subjectively experienced. Now the point is: consciousness (in the Advaitic sense) is the very subjective experiencing itself. It is, as the Advaitins formulate, the witnessing of the experiences.” – ‘On the Advaitic Identification of Self and Consciousness’, Wolfgang Fasching.

M. Now, that is metaphysical or philosophical – prior to or other than empirical science.

SL. “To admit that we are matter and mechanism is to ground ourselves in the wholeness of the cosmos. In the new physics, self coalesces from the stuff of the stars, exists briefly… ” (quoting ‘Skeptics and True Believers’).

M. This is not even science – it is a physicalist or materialist philosophical position.

Q.505 Creation and Enlightenment

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/

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Q.453 Consciousness is happiness?

Q: I have just read your book ‘How to meet yourself’. I am not sure if I understand what you mean when you say that “Consciousness is happiness” and that “I am happiness”. Since everything is an appearance within consciousness, wouldn’t happiness be just that? Why would we equate consciousness to happiness?

A: Before answering the question, it would be useful to note the difference between Consciousness and consciousness. Consciousness with as capital ‘C’ is used throughout in all of these answers to refer to Brahman, the non-dual reality. The mind is conscious because Consciousness is reflected by the mind. The body and mind are both inert in themselves. It is important not to confuse these terms.

The actual paragraph is:

“Fourthly, it would not be meaningful to talk about Consciousness being happy or unhappy. Being complete and without limitations of any sort, it is more appropriate to say that Consciousness is happiness. This, then, is an aspect of my true nature. Since I am Consciousness, there is nothing that I need, nothing to be achieved, nowhere to which I have to get. I am already perfect and complete – I am happiness”.

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Q.490 Consciousness and the Brain

Q: My question is one I can’t seem to clarify through any book, teacher or teaching:

How do we know that the brain isn’t responsible for consciousness? While we can observe mind with all of it’s contents as objects and then say we cannot be that which we observe, how can we be sure that there is not just some part of the brain which does the observing that is giving us this ability to watch thought? How does Vedanta address this? How can we know that the brain isn’t simply the one observing all phenomena?

Side note: I lost consciousness once due to a fall and blacked out, and all I can say is that there was complete absence of being and no one there to be aware of the non-beingness. No observer nor observed. Beyond no-thing. Absolutely no experience beyond the concept of the word. Continue reading

Is the Eastern/Western distinction in philosophy useful and meaningful?

It definitely is. By and large, Eastern philosophy differs from the Western-type in more than one respect. Firstly, its orientation is much more holistic, by which I mean going beyond logical analysis and the interests of empiricism – including science (the OBJECT) – and touching on human realities and interests (the SUBJECT). Eastern philosophy can thus be characterized as having a religious-mystical dimension which incorporates a soteriology (release or liberation rather than ‘individual salvation’)* and which one can find only in different forms in the West in the philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the Cynics. Eastern philosophy has persisted for thousands of years in its geographic areas of spread and is still dominant there, although more recently there has been a Western influence in Indian philosophy, where Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, etc., are being increasingly studied. This is the case mostly in academic circles – and vice versa, East to West, but in the latter case not so much in Academia. Continue reading