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.”

Q. 393 – Idealism or Realism?

Q:       Advaita often uses certain language and metaphors, and these can often come across as sort of a “subjective idealism plus”. Where subjective idealism argues that the “outside world” is a completely nonexistent illusion produced in a mind, Advaita sometimes seems to say yes, that’s true – only, behind that mind that imagines the world is consciousness witnessing the mind, which is “projected” onto consciousness by the mysterious maya. In other words, Berkeley was right, only he didn’t go far enough. This leaves Advaita sounding like total solipsism, blended with hardline idealism. Consciousness, some sort of unimaginable void incapable of anything, is having a mind and a world “imagined” onto it by maya, which despite the incapability of consciousness to do anything is still a “power” of that consciousness. (Of course, this is very much a conceptualization, taking these metaphors too literally and looking at these terms and concepts through a very Westernized lens. But this is often the way some teachings sound!)

      But in addition to the talk of all things being total illusion, I will also hear that Advaita is realist – that the universe is not a hallucination; that it is, in one sense, “actually there”; and that it is in comparison to the changeless paramarthika viewpoint that vyavahara is “unreal”. This position makes much more sense to me than imagining the universe to be some sort of magic trick.

      Now, I recognize that these explanations – both of them – are attempts to “point” at truth, and not a tidy description of truth itself. Ultimately, there is only brahman; there are no “illusory things” and no “real things”. But I’m far from truly grasping that yet, so I suppose my question is: which of these descriptions more accurately reflects the nature and relation of vyavahara and paramartha? Or are both illustrations only as useful as what they can communicate to a student? Or am I just getting way too caught up in concepts here? Continue reading