Vedanta vs Empiricism

Mādhava asked in the spring of 2018 on Quora:

Is Vedanta immune to criticism from Atheism/Empiricism because its position is radically subjective?

This question was based on listening to Aron Ra’s intelligent and very systematic refutations of American Evangelist Christian’s „proofs“ for the existence of God. Pondering how we followers of Vedanta would converse with a stout empiricist like Aron Ra, Mādhava came to the conjecture that the subjectivism inherent in Vedanta is the key difference to the Abrahamist’s position. Vedanta starts from the subjective observation, the occurrences in the field (Kshetra) to use the parlance of the Bhagavad Gīta.

Answer by Kratu Nandan (abbreviated)
It is true that Vedanta presupposes a Knower or Witness (subject) which alone is the common element in the ever-changing phenomena of the universe. It is therefore very easy to label Vedanta as ‘radically subjective’. However, it is not as simple as that.

On the contrary, Shankaracharya, in his Brahmasutrabhashya, has uncompromisingly stated that Brahmajnana (Knowledge of the final, underlying Reality of all phenomena) depends solely on the object (vastutantra) and not on the subject (purushatantra or kartrutantra). Evidently, this is out and out objectivity. Therefore Vedanta is not a weak system of philosophy that gleefully hides under the protective canopy of the ‘subjective’.

Vedanta remains objective, and yet remains immune to criticism from empiricism on account of its questioning, challenging and disproving of the conventional definitions and limits of the subject (vishayi) and object (vishaya). Instead, it is shown that the sense organs (indriya) themselves are objects of perception , as opposed to the empiricist’s idea of them being the subject.

(…)

What is more, Vedanta does not consider anything that appears and disappears to be real. Something real must always exist and should remain unaffected by time. Thus, the appearing and disappearing ego, along with its ‘subservient operatives’, are held to be an unreal. The true Knower is the one who perceives the presence and absence of ego, and is always unaffected by it.

Further on, Vedanta observes that what goes under the name of empirical knowledge of the objective world is defective and incomplete, as it is ‘mediate’ (paroksha). What is meant is that such knowledge is obtained, moulded, fashioned and shaped through the ‘medium’ of indriya, manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara, which themselves are unreal. Even taking for granted that they are real, the knowledge obtained through them is relative. We might find a peanut to be a tiny object, while an ant will find it huge. We may see a colourful world while an animal without colour perception will see it differently. Which of us can claim our own knowledge alone to be real?

It is therefore that according to Vedanta, the true knowledge of the objective world lies in getting rid of such media and knowing it directly. The term employed for such a knowledge is – ‘immediate’ (aparoksha). Such a direct perception is called aparokshanubhuti,and the one with such a knowledge is called aparokshajnani.

When through vichara (enquiry) the unreal ego is discarded, the trinity of known, knower and knowledge vanishes – and the Reality without any such distinctions shines as I – but without the ego. The Knower is non-different from Knowledge.

(…)

It is a grand Unity that cannot even be described as One, due to the lack of anything else besides It. It is perfect Silence.

There are at least two logical validations or paradoxes possible in this direction. One is that if the whole physical universe is one interdependent, interwoven system, why is our consciousness limited to our body alone? The other, as Swami Vivekananda points out, is that “motion is possible in comparison with something which is a little less in motion or entirely motionless”. If the universe is taken as a unit whole, it has to be motionless or unchangeable, for there is nothing else besides it with respect to which it changes. Yet, we see movement every moment..

Indeed, the ‘true validation’ of this lies in the Experience of this Unity for the individual concerned, and is verily subjective. The proof of such an experience for the onlookers lie in the conduct of such people. They do not escape any responsibility that life may bring. They completely take it up and execute it to perfection. Their compassion is unbound and universal. They do not transgress anything that is held ethical. The feeble feelings of empathy, love, compassion and responsibility that we, the ordinary people, feel are only pointers in that direction.

The reproducibility of such an experience is seen when such people instill similar feelings in the individuals they come in contact with, which is also subjective. Moreover, the deep sleep (that comes closest to aparokshanubhuti) in which the subject-object duality is suspended, though subjective, is a universal experience. The articulation of the deep sleep experience is universally corroborated, reproduced and validated in the words, ‘I did not know anything then’.

Finally, for that matter, the reproducibility of any empirical validation is also subjective, as the validation will have to be experienced by a validator, and is relative to him.

To conclude, Vedanta is not escaping the objectivity criterion. In an uncompromising, undying effort to grasp the objective, it discards what is wrongly held to be the subject, and finally declares the distinction of ‘objective & subjective’ and ‘God and the individual’ to be limited, relative and false.

I hope I made some sense in writing all this!

Mādhava
Ooh, I think we are getting confused by the words objective and subjective. If we take object in the Advaita sense as “the perceived”, yes, agree, then there is no issue.

There are two buts:

  • if we put on the hat of an empiricist, objective means perceivable for all, reproducible. He would not accept your conclusion as it can not be proven by the “objective (his sense of the word)” means of science. He might say that if everything beyond the perceiver is unreal, Advaita is pure religion as it does not allow for falsification.
  • Even tough many take Vedanta = Advaita, that’s not the case. In fact the lineage in which I received Deeksha, the Śrī Vaishnava Sampradāya, has very strong objections on Advaita which I share. As there are parts of the Upanishads which speak of difference between Jīvāthmā and Brahman and a real world, we cannot presuppose that everything beyond the perceiver is ultimately unreal / the same category of object (in the Advaita sense).

So, I think it’s not that easy. We cannot use the Advaita presupposition since this position is rejected both by empiricists and some Vedanta schools, so we can’t argue us as followers of Sanatana Dharma out from the criticism of empiricists this way…

 

Kratu Nandan

🙂 Thanks for your comments. As an academic student of physics, I understand it well enough. The solution lies in questioning the empiricists’ criteria.

  1. Vedanta does not deny the empiricists’ meaning that what is “objective” must be perceivable for all. It simply extends it by saying that anything that is objective should be “perceivable for all (all cognitive entities including animals) at all times”. Therefore, it should be perceivable to oneself at all times too. In other words, it should be time-space-independent. The only thing, Vedanta says, that is time-space-independent is the “perceiver”. The only constant in the ever changing phenomena is the witness of it. And no one can deny that he as a perceiver exists. Or does the empiricist say that his existence as a perceiver should be perceived by all to be true? Is not the perception of one’s own existence independent of other’s validation?
  2. If this criterion of time-space-independence be included, would falsification of the empiricists’ “means of science” based on it be allowed? If yes, then the empiricists’ “objective” will become a time-space-dependent religion. If not allowed, how can we take something to be objective if it isn’t perceived by all at all times? How can we agree upon something that we don’t even perceive or perceive only at certain times and places?
  3. Does the empiricist deny his own mind as an object of perception? Is it not “known” by him? Is his mind an object for any of thr five senses? If “perceivable for all” be the criterion, then his mind doesn’t exist, as it is not at all perceivable through senses for anyone, let alone all.
  4. Does the empiricists’ “all” include the other cognitive entities including animals?
  5. Do not the “all (other people who are equal validators)” form a part of his own experience? Do they exist outside his own experience? Does he or anyone at anytime have anything but their own experiences to rely on? Does anyone at anytime cognise anything but his/her own experience? Is the empiricist’s experience “perceivable for all”? If not, are those experiences objective by his own definition? If he admits they aren’t objective, how and why does he rely on them? Is not the criterion, “perceivable by all”, one’s own experience?
  6. Who will validate the “perceivable for all” criterion? Collectively by every single cognitive entity at the present moment? Or is it that “all” a hypothetical?
  7. Why does the empiricist limit his “perceivable by all” to the senses alone?
  8. Coming to interpretations of Vedanta as being many faced, yes. As a south Indian, I am more aware of it.But if you question the followers of each of those groups, they will say their’s alone is true. So, in the individual’s perception, there is only one Vedanta.
  9. I must say, with all due immense respects to all the great acharyas of all the sampradayas, none of them can even come close to addressing the empiricists ideas, but Advaita.

Finally, thanks for this question. It’s very desirable to engage in such thought processes.

 

Mādhava

1) I doubt that your fellow physicists or numerous non Advaita Acharyas would agree. From an empiricist‘s point of view, predictability and measureability suffices for objective existence. Requiring the permanence you outline already imposes the Advaita result of non-existence of reality.

5) & 6) This is presuposing Advaita Siddhānta. Empirically, we can easily demonstrate that you are not me and perceive differently.

9) : ) I would object to that, but that‘s kinda obvious, isn’t it?

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