Understanding Reality – Part 2

Understanding Reality
in the Vision of Advaita Vedānta

by Wolfgang P., wpl@gmx.net

Read Part 1 of this article

The reality of money

Let’s use this method of inquiry to investigate another ubiquitous entity: What is the reality of money? Ask someone on the street if money is real, you would hardly find anyone doubting it. But what actually ‘is’ money? We assume it is real, but what is the substratum of its reality? Is it independently real or does it depend on something for its existence? Is money just the amount of coins in your wallet? Certainly not, since money also appears as bills, cheques, and as digital data. Today the majority of the world’s money is stored as binary code on hard drives. Is the reality of money the binary code on the hard drive, which is storing the balance of the bank account?

Let’s imagine, an alien species visits our planet for the first time. In their foreign culture the concept of money is unknown. Would it be obvious for them to learn what money is, by simply investigating the data of the hard drive? All they could do is extract the data, but they would lack the contextual information about what to do with it. Therefore, money, which seems very ‘real’ to us practically, has no physical substratum. It is only by convention that coins, bills, or digital data act as a symbolic carrier for money. The reality of 10 USD does not originate from a 10-dollar bill. If the money were ‘in’ the bill, it would be impossible to replace an old bill for a new one. Physical carriers, like coins or bills, act as a medium for money, but they ‘are’ not money.

Money depends on the convention between trade parties

The question persists: What is the reality of money? Isn’t it surprising that there is no straightforward answer for something which seems to be very real for us? We are using it almost daily! Let’s take the most simple definition of money: Money is an abstract medium for trade. Abstract means that there is no restriction to the objects of trade. Having money as an intermediary, virtually any object can be traded given the trade parties agree on the legitimacy of money. If money is not accepted by one of trade parties, there will be no trade at all.

Pushing this example to its limits: If there were no one accepting money as a legitimate medium of trade, there wouldn’t exist any money at all, no matter how many coins or bills exist on the planet. Therefore, the reality of money is the reality of the convention of the trading parties. Nothing outside of this agreement could give money its reality. Money is mithyā, depending on the convention of the trading parties. We habitually believe that money is a ‘thing’ that exists independently of ‘us’. But when we inquire into this assumption, it turns out to be a misunderstanding.

Understanding reality as a dependency relationship

These examples should demonstrate that reality can be analyzed through a series of dependency relationships. Money is mithyā, depending on the convention of the traders. A pot of clay is mithyā, depending on clay for its existence. But is clay ultimately satyam, dependent on nothing else for its existence? No, because clay itself depends on something else. It is made out of a variety of minerals, which are made out of atoms, which are made out of subatomic particles and so forth. Now the question arises: If we trace back the dependency relationships, do we find an ultimate substance? Something which is not dependent on anything else for its existence?

Within the paradigm of materialism, we would claim the ultimate substances are the particles and forces of the Standard Model of physics. According to this model, everything is dependent upon them. But when we take into account the tenets of quantum physics, a purely materialistic viewpoint is no longer valid. In quantum physics the term ‘measurement’ comes into the picture as an ontological category. The state of a particle in quantum theory is mathematically expressed as a wave function Ψ. Raised to the square it has the same characteristics as a probability density function. Unlike in classical physics, the state of a particle at a certain time can only be described by a probability. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, measurement lets the wave function collapse. This collapse results in a specific value of the measured variable. Quantum physics posits a non-separability of measurement and the measured variable. A theory that unifies the Standard Model and quantum physics is still missing. So within physics, we cannot find that which is ultimately satyam.

René Descartes, the French philosopher, was also interested in this matter. In a process of inquiry, he tried to find what is true and cannot be doubted. His conclusion was that there cannot be any doubt about my own existence. He bundled the ‘I’ with the thinking faculty and stated: “There is cognition, therefore I exist”. Descartes was a dualist, upholding the distinction between mind and matter. Still, his argument points to what is empirically evident: “I exist” and furthermore, “I am conscious”. Both statements depend on each other and none of them can be negated. We will use these findings as a starting point for our investigation.

Inquiry into the nature of the self

In Vedānta, the ‘I’ is referred to as the self. The self cannot be reduced to something else, because it is a given. All experiences and mental phenomena, vtti-s, like thoughts or emotions, are fleeting, but what stays is the subject, that-which-experiences, but is itself never an object of experience. This fact is easy to overlook. In the same way as a movie screen is untouched by the movie that is projected onto it, mental phenomena and sense-perceptions do not modify that-which-experiences. It is the stable basis of perception. Since all perceived objects are fleeting, none of them could be accounted for the self. By ruling out all the impermanent vtti-s, we discover that-which-experiences or pure consciousness, cit. This process of inquiry is called dg-dśya-viveka, discrimination between the seer and the seen. When the student applies this method to himself with dedication over a longer period, pure consciousness, cit, gets recognized.

Cit is identical with the self, which is what I am, because I am that-which-experiences all impermanent objects of experience. What is the result, when we subtract all objects of experience from the subject? Do we experience the body? Do we experience thoughts and emotions? Yes we do, so they do not belong to that-which-experiences, the subject of experience. When we eliminate all objects of experience from the subject, what is left is no longer a personal ‘me’ but a universal subject, devoid of any personal traits. It is still what I am, because what applies to the universal subject applies also to me: I am that-which-experiences, cit. What is the nature of this subject? Śaṅkarācārya informs us in Tattvaboda:

तत्त्वविवेकः कः
आत्मा सत्यं तदन्यत् सर्वं मिथ्येति ॥

tattvavivekaḥ kaḥ
ātmā satyaṃ tadanyat sarvaṃ mithyeti ||

What is the discriminative knowledge of truth?
Ātmā, (I) is the truth, satya; all else other than this is mithyā.

Ātmā means ‘I’, the self. The statement claims that the self is satyam. It does not depend on something else for its existence. Logically, there cannot be two entities that are qualifed as satyam, because if there were two of them, one would have to be dependent on the other for its existence, which would make it mithyā. If ātmā is satyam, everything else, anātmā, has to be mithyā. This is revealed by the Upaniṣads. Inquiry into the nature of existence by discriminating between satyam and mithyā is tattva-viveka. It leads to tattva, the truth of the object of inquiry, which is the nature of reality.

Consciousness, cit, is satyam

I, ātmā, exist and my existence cannot be negated. Furthermore, I’m very sure that I am conscious. To state “I’m not conscious” would be self-refuting the moment I’m making the claim. The statement that consciousness, cit, is my very nature, cannot be negated either. If you ask yourself the question: “Am I conscious right now?” The answer cannot be different from “Yes”. Therefore, consciousness, cit, exists and it is what I am, so it is cit-ātmā too.

Is consciousness depending on something else for its existence? Neuroscientists assume that consciousness is generated by the brain. But this is an unproven hypothesis. The philosophical elaboration of the underlying question is called the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’.4 It states that the subjective quality of experience cannot be explained by objective science. A corollary of this statement is the unprovability of the hypothesis that consciousness is produced by the brain.

For our inquiry it is enough to contemplate the fact that whatever object we are experiencing, consciousness must be there in the first place to experience it. When we investigate our experience, consciousness is always present. No object would be perceivable without consciousness being aware of the object. The contents of consciousness are ever-changing: colors, tastes, smells, thoughts, emotions, and so forth. But whatever we are experiencing, we need consciousness in the first place to experience it. Is there a world independent of consciousness? There is no way to prove it. We assume it in our daily life, but if we do the work of thorough investigation, we have to admit that it is only a belief.

The primacy of consciousness is an empirical fact. Therefore, cit is satyam, and because we cannot get one without the other, we can equate them, so satyam is also cit. There is no other satyam than cit, since consciousness gives existence to all objects. Like the pot ‘receives’ its existence from clay, all perceived objects ‘receive’ their existence from consciousness. There would be no reality without consciousness. Therefore, reality is non-separate, advaitam, from consciousness. The contents of consciousness are depending upon consciousness, hence they are mithyā, dependent reality, having sat-cit as their substratum. Like clay, which can be molded into various shapes and forms, sat-cit gives rise to everything that is experienced.

This is the second part of a 3-part series. To be concluded next month, when a downloadable PDF version of the complete essay will be provided.