Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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The circularity and inexpressibility of advaitic thinking

Posted by robertpriddy on January 29, 2010

There are many deniers of modern science among Indian religionists, not least on account of their most sophisticated kind of speculative ‘philosophy’ known as advaita (non-dualism). Among the claims made in this pseudo-philosophy we find the denial that any study of the ‘outside world’ will only lead to further delusion, because it is only by inner study (meditation, prayer, worship etc.) that ‘The Truth’ can be attained. Some refer to the Vedic scriptures as being the ultimate in explanation of the cosmos… and these are mostly hymns to deities! Out of the culture developed around Vedism, Vedanta and the ‘teachings’ of various alleged ‘masters of wisdom’ and gurus a hodge-podge of fantastic theories – basically solipisist – have been developed. Her follows one example of the kind of reasoning involved:-

A comment was made on my earlier posting ‘The Ultimate Fallacy: God is inside, God is all and everything” – see full version here The full text of the comment is seen at the foot of this page. The comment of Kiran began:-

“Advaita is not circular reasoning. It is also not about mental being superior to material. Since you have some philosophical training, if you wish to understand Advaita properly, you can approach it from linguistics. The quintessential element is the difference between form (word) and essence (meaning). What imparts meaning to a word? Does a word innately and implicitly have a meaning, or is the meaning attributed by something else (termed as consciousness)? Now can that “something else” be described by simpler words ? Advaita says that as you walk down this road, trying to reduce words with simpler and simpler words, you’ll inevitably encounter a paradox. There is the abyss staring at you and you cannot reduce meaning to words anymore.”

Kiran bluntly expresses his belief that advaita is not circular reasoning, – without any clear argument or evidence. Here I shall contest his attitude as shallow. Actually, I have studied Vedanta and Advaita in considerable depth for nearly 3 decades, and I was impressed by the sophistication of its ideas, but I have gone full circle and rid myself of those unfounded (otherwordly) beliefs which are essential to support advaita. I was already a professional philosophy lecturer with plenty of ‘philosophical training’ in most of its main areas, including linguistic analysis, philosophy of science, logic and so forth. Clearly Kiran does not understand linguistics at all, not even the basics. Here are some: meaning is attributed to words originally (firstly) by referents (perceptions from a physical source). Subsequently, through the mind (i.e. brain) perceptions are compared and words are invented to name the similarities and differences between physically-sensed impressions (Hume), and interpreted actions. This gives rise to the entire universe of discourse. These meanings are learned through experience and meaning does not simply arise from – but is given to – consciousness through the experience of learning (from environment not from any primeval inner source). This is backed up by most extensive scientific research.

Firstly, it is wrong to think that meaning is reduced to words in modern linguistic analysis, far from it. The distinction ‘form’ and ‘meaning’ – supposedly so ‘quintessential’ – itself leads one into circular reasoning. The  role of ‘form’ in advaita, (also central to Plato’s idealism)  is philosophically too little nuanced. It does not even take account of basic distinctions relating to the meaning of language – such as were made in Ogden’s famous triangle between ‘term’, ‘concept’, ‘thing’ – in his work ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ or Wittgenstein’s essential distinctions like tautology, contradiction and logically contingent or the rules of sense and nonsense).

Brentano’s axiom ‘Consciousness is always consciousness of something’ (even when only of its own representations of itself) is unrefuted. Consequently consciousness does not exist as an independent ‘subject’ for it arises only though it having some ‘content’ – some object, which can be a things, a perceptions, a memory, a reflected sense of a previous act of consciousness and so on…). Consciousness has no independent existence as a source of anything. This raises the debate about whether consciousness is brain-dependent. I have followed this issue throughout my life, with many changes of standpoint, and have written voluminously to defend the idea that soul, psyche, consciousness etc. transcend the physical realm and exist independently (see here). However, as the evidence has accumulated and evolution has become a more and more rocklike, unshakeable fact, I now at last regard that it is brain-dependent as well substantiated, especially in the very latest neurological psychology. See A.C. Grayling and related scientists. One may still be able to listen to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p005bckf (1 Dec 2009 … AC Grayling speaks to the Canadian neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland about what we now know . It also consequently bears on the insubstantiality of beliefs about incorporeal spirits, astral ‘realms’, akasha and whatever. If not, read my summary here.

Advaita is proclaimed as the ‘Highest Truth’ and that it can only be experienced in samadhi, an immersion in Unity where no dualism whatever is perceived. Hence it is the ultimate in imagined otherworldliness. This shows that Advaita is  totally subjective and cannot relate to objective truth is any way… for objectivity depends on the extension of space-time (i.e. the physical universe).

Advaita is ultimately truly circular, being what Wittgenstein defines most accurately as ‘tautological’. That is to say, it is without sense (i.e. having no referential relation to any sense impressions and hence is ‘nonsensical’). Advaita is a system of concepts without corresponding ‘objects’, i.e. without ANY empirical foundational data. Instead it relies on the idea that the cosmos is full of ‘forms’. This term conflates both ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’ into one, and obviates the scientific approach.  The advaitic doctrine(s) as a whole amount only to speculation, however imaginative. Advaita – as presented in words which its ‘mystics’ insist are entirely misleading anyhow – regards the physical world and the mind equally as illusion, or ‘maya’. It is dependent on a concept of the indefinability of truth as ‘neti, neti’ (i.e. ‘not this, not that’) – and insists on the inexpressibility of the truth – of consciousness (‘all-encompassing’ as it is nevertheless said – contradictorily – to be). Advaitists can always deny the truth of anything on their assumption that truth cannot be stated… that’s the beauty of inexpressibility, but it is a trap! They often tend to refer to emptiness, just as in Buddhist Nagarjuna’s conception. The mind for them is sometimes compared to a radio receiver and sender – there is actually no one in the radio – for mind, ego and individuality are illusions. Most variants of Advaita nevertheless regard Satchitananda as the one real fundament of existence, but it cannot be described. Right? As such it totally denies all forms of physicalism as in the most modern developments in physics (which is still physics… still being an extension of the study of physical phenomena – that is, what Indian philosophy groups as Prakriti, and NOT Purusha, which has no relation to physics of any kind. I charcterised advaitic ‘philosophy’ as a dream in a hall of distorting mirrors’.

“In fact, a similar roadblock has been encountered in mathematical logic through the theorem of incompleteness of Kurt Godel. This is better digestible if you’ve a background in computer science or AI. Physicalism is just another form of reductionism, trying to reduce consciousness down to physical entities or laws. In the crudest form, this philosophy resembles atomicism (of the Greek or the ancient Indian “Vaiseshika” variety), trying to reduce everything to physical blobs or particles called matter. Modern physics makes this treatment untenable. In the more sophisticated version of physicalism, where consciousness is attempted to be reduced to a set of “physical laws”. This enters the territory of computer science and logic that has been ransacked by Godel years ago.”

The kind of extreme materialistic reductionism which tries to reduce consciousness to physical laws hardly exists today. Such roadblocks as Kiran refers to are found in many disciplines, and advaita is perhaps the biggest ‘roadblock’ of all… to further understanding that is, because it is tied to a stagnant ‘absolutist’ system of assumptions. One has to step back and see it as the historically-developed labyrinth without secure foundation that it is. (The best succinct description of this history I know is in The Guru Papers – Kramer and Alstead as noted in my earlier blog (Advaita – historical flight into abstraction and speculation – see here)

I have written much about the impossibility of totalisation, of theoretical absolutism, of objectivisation, of ontologisation too, which is the philosophic equivalent of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I have written a great deal on the failings of excessive physicalism/reductionism (see here) but have moved on to a position which is even further from vulgar reductionism – a dynamic perception-based philosophy and psychology. There are many levels to physicalism, and modern physics is still also an expression of physicalism…

As a philosopher I point to Western thinkers who have developed the philosophy of language and meaning to a very high level. Locke, Hume, Russell, Whitehead, Ogden, Wittgenstein, Ryle – and on the Continent the phenomenology and hermeneutics of Dilthey, Betti, Ricoeur and others. Meaning is a complex phenomenon relying on concepts expressed by progressively abstracted words – taking their start from a simple object language and growing in complexity as the reach of a language expands. Simpler ideas get combined, deepened, refined in many ways including through empirical research, developing syntaxes, discovery of new referents (empirical discovery) and so on. Consciousness of itself cannot produce a single word… all words are learned and… when skill is developed, created either imaginatively or practically along with new discoveries, whether empirical or intellectual.

“The meaning that you attribute to the word “God” is entirely upto your own choice. If you wish to import Judaeo-Christian imagery with this word, it is fine. But that may not help convey you the essence of the Advaita system. It is better to use the true Sanskrit words “Brahman” (etymologically, that which grows), “Atman” (self) etc.”

Strictly, the word God has no meaning in so far as there is no existent to which it relates… It is a mental-emotional construction representing an ideal. not any real state of affairs. , not a phenomenally given referent. The same goes for Brahmam, Atma and all such names for any ‘supernatural divine’… despite their somewhat different connotations. it is paramount to such language conventions as miasma, mirage etc. It originates mainly from (subjective) interpretations of (distorted, flawed and primitive) historical scriptures.

Comment from Kiran

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