Descartes, Dennet, and Dedication

sceneBy Swami Tripurari

It is perhaps worth noting that Descartes’ argument for a self in the shape of human consciousness distinct from the objective world of matter (which was, in Descartes’ mind, ours to exploit), however lacking in other respects, has never been refuted on the epistemological ground on which it was formed. From the yogin’s perspective, which leaves behind Descartes’ sense of entitlement lending to exploitation of the natural world, the balance of his argument has some merit. While the dualism of mind/brain first formulated in Western philosophy by Descartes may not be popular in the 21st century for a number of good reasons, the materialistic monism/functionalism that enjoys popularity also leaves much to be desired, especially for the yogin, despite his or her preoccupation with yogic nondualism. Functionalism advocate Daniel Dennet, in his widely read “Consciousness Explained,” begins by admitting that his efforts at demystifying consciousness will be viewed by many as “an act of intellectual vandalism.” In other words he knows that he has a hard sale to make.

Why? Because his conclusion that humans are devoid of conscious experience runs counter to the deeply rooted sense in all of us that we all have conscious experience—quallia, sentience, sapience—and that such experience is the essence of any meaningful life. John Searle says it well when he writes,  “ . . . if your theory results in the view that consciousness does not exist, you have simply produced a reductio ad absurdum of your theory.”

As does the yogic worldview, Searle considers consciousness to be irreducible. However, Searle does not consider consciousness a “stuff” different from matter, as do the yogins. Searle also ignores two major dimensions of consciousness, dream and deep sleep, which are unarguably connected with consciousness in the waking dimension and important from the yogic perspective. He also focuses his discussion of consciousness on cognitive functions and behavioral patterns in the waking state; whereas the yogic worldview focuses on this unitary I-ness of consciousness, on the experiencer rather than its experiences from which awareness of pain, pleasure etc. derive meaning.

In the yogic worldview consciousness is a non-spatial stuff that is linked to the brain via the mind, through which it can be contemplated and through the silencing of which in meditation it can be known. Such meditation and yogic dedication involves a radical objectivity, calling for detachment on the part of the conscious being from his or her material surroundings in an effort to experience consciousness as independent of matter. What is that experience? It is ourselves, our pure “I-ness” unencumbered by the physical and psychic dimensions of awareness that constitute our material ego or fleeting sense of material identity. What is the nature of this yogic experience? Sam Harris, popular atheist author with a keen interest in neuroscience and a desire to revisit religion with reason said it well when he said that he considers it likely that the happiest man on the planet might well have spent the last twenty years living alone in a cave (in meditation).

Outside of meditation, this I-ness appears in materially adulterated forms during our waking/physical and dream/psychic states. In deep dreamless sleep it also endures in a condition vaguely aware of itself yet unfettered by the psychic and physical dimensions of awareness. If it were not vaguely aware of itself, how could we “experience” dreamless sleep? Can one remember that which one has no experience of? A blind man can know what it is like to see colors only if he has experienced them before he became blind. Similarly, after waking I remember that I slept deeply only because consciousness/I-ness existed during that sleep, at which time I had a vague awareness of a “content-less” experience. One cannot remember that which one has no experience of. Nor can one infer something that has never presented itself somewhere at sometime. The yogic insight in all of this is that beyond the objective world of matter experienced in our waking state and the subjective world of mind represented in dreams, we exist as a unit of consciousness. The physical and psychic dimensions of life will close down at death, but the self lives on. Yoga is about realizing this—about transcending materially adulterated I-ness and waking up to the enduring self.

Consciousness cannot be reduced to the brain. While there is an obvious correlation between the two, they are as different as night is from day. There is a divide between matter and spirit, as there is between shadow and light. However, the yogic world view that distinguishes consciousness from matter is simultaneously monistic in some respects, and thus it is a much softer dualism than that of Descartes—a kinder, yogic, dedicated nondual/dualism. Matter is different from consciousness, but is not independent of it and in this sense something entirely other. One is not holy, the other profane. All is sacred, even while consciousness is the sole enduring factor amidst an ever changing material phenomena. “Things” may be here today and gone tomorrow, but when we stop exploiting them as if they belong to us, even they may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and our source.

This article was originally published in Ananda Magazine, Autumn 2009.

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27 Responses to Descartes, Dennet, and Dedication

  1. “Things” may be here today and gone tomorrow, but when we stop exploiting them as if they belong to us, even they may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and our source.

    This would be the basis of seeing the world as an abode of joy–visvam purnam sukhayate. Unfortunately seeing everything as a manifestation of Bhagavan’s sakti and thus sacred is very easily forgotten in the rush of daily life.

  2. I am not sure how much value there is in the mental wranglings of the western mleccha and yavana philosophers.
    Philosophy without religion is simply mental speculation. The best it can offer even to the greatest of mental speculators as the jnani-yogis is a superficial acquaintance with the outer covering of the Absolute Truth.
    How much these western thinkers can assist us in advancing in Krishna bhakti is very questionable.
    Last year I bought a book of all the greatest western philosophers known to the academic world. After going through it once I threw it in the waste can, realizing that there was not a single drop of amrita anywhere to be found there.
    It was all just so much dry mental speculation.

    • I guess it would be good to refrain to use derogatory terms like mleccha and yavanas for all western philosophers. I am an Indian, but I do not like terms like mlecchas and yavanas used for all westerners. According to muslims, we all are kafirs and infidels.
      Read Indian philosophers in commentaries on Vedanta Sutra and Nyasa Sastra. There is a lot of mental wrangling there too.

      • These terms are the terms used in Srimad Bhagavatam. Mleccha is not a derogatory remark, it is the Vedic terminology for meat-eater. Yavana is the term used in Srimad Bhagavatam to refer to cultures of people who live outside the Vedic society.

        I am not so sure that attaching some sort of derogatory stigma to the Vedic terms “Mleccha” or “Yavana” is really not some sort of slight to the Bhagavatam itself.

        I think we should be careful not to come out and demean the terminology used in the Paramahansa Samhita – Srimad Bhagavatam as being something vulgar or offensive.

    • I think it is important to demonstrate that the core of Vedanta has credibility in the thinking world of today.

  3. Nobody is living in Vedic society anymore. Similarly you are a kafir according to Quran. Anybody trying to not use that word for you will be demeaning the Quran.

    People in Vedic culture also ate meat especially kshatriyas. They were not mlecchas.

    • Vedic Ksatriyas ate wild deer meat occasionally or other such wild animals, but they certainly never partook of the slaughterhouse meat derived from the senseless slaughter of Mother Cow.
      To compare the meat-eating of the Vedic Ksatriyas to the eating of slaughterhouse meat of the mlecchas is a very misleading comparison.
      It is highly doubtful that the Vedic Rajarsis partook of meat-eating as did the rank and file warriors.
      Yes, we know that Lord Ramacandra has been accused of eating deer meat.
      The Rajarsis were great sages and certainly had no appetite for the blood and flesh of animals.

      • Thakura Bhaktivinoda ate meat until he got initiated in his 40s. Prior to that he had written many books, including Sri Krsna-samhita. He was a great devotional mystic and still lived according to his cultural upbringing; thus I don’t think it much of a stretch that the rajarshis ate meat at a time when that was part of being a king.

        • All of this talk about meat eaters is way off topic. The article is about the nature of consciousness. This is where science a religion meet more than anywhere else becausue consciousness is a mystery. Modern science was born Christian. Then is its adolescence is became agnostic. Now in maturity is has become atheistic, but in its old age it will become a mystic.

        • Sorry for the digression. I was just concerned with use of mlecchas and yavana terminology to dismiss all western thought is not the essence of what the Bhagavata is all about. There are many philosophers in the west like Plato, Aquinas and Kant who have had good insight into nature of things in spite of being outside Vedic tradition.

        • Yes, no doubt.

          It is interesting to look at the Western idea that mind/consciousness is different from matter (Descartes) and how at the same time this insight lead to the exploitation of matter for material purposes, and then how the loss of reverence and subsequent exploitation or the natural world lead to the merging of mind/consciousness and matter. Whereas in the East the notion of consciousness and matter being different that came much earlier did not lead to wholesale exploitation of the natural world but rather mandated reverence for it. And this Eastern idea is now gaining ground in the West.

        • It is interesting to look at the Western idea that mind/consciousness is different from matter (Descartes) and how at the same time this insight lead to the exploitation of matter for material purposes, and then how the loss of reverence and subsequent exploitation or the natural world lead to the merging of mind/consciousness and matter.

          Interesting point, which leads to the question: Why did the West and the East arrive at such wildly variant conclusions despite having a common insight? The Western idea seems to have major Christian influence where matter was somehow divorced from its divine origin and thus exists only to be used by humanity.

        • I think that claim about Bhaktivinoda is outright false.
          That claim is simply rumor based upon a misunderstanding of something that Bhaktivinode wrote.
          I think that such claims are misleading and offensive to Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

          Are we to think that Bhaktivinode could not observe that the Vaishnava’s who first instructed him on Vaishnavism were strict vegetarians?

          Are we to think that Bhaktivinoda adopted Vaishnavism and the study of Chaitanya Charitamrita and Bhagavatam without adopting the Vaishnava principles?

          I don’t buy it.
          The sources for these claims are quite dubious.

  4. As far as the topic is concerned, I have a question for Tripurari Maharaja.
    In the article you state:

    The physical and psychic dimensions of life will close down at death, but the self lives on.

    I have never understood that all psychic dimensions of life automatically close down at the time of death. How can that be true if in fact there is the phenomenon of ghostly existence after leaving the gross body?
    The soul is covered by eight layers of material energy. One such layer is “mind” and another is “ego” and another is “intelligence”.

    These are subtle material energies beyond the brain and gross body.
    These activities do not stop at the time of leaving the gross body.

    If all psychic activity stops at death then there could certainly be no such thing as ghosts or even the impetus for taking another gross body.

    Modern science holds the misconception that all psychic activities are related to and produced by the brain. This is not the Vedic conclusion.

    Mind, ego and intelligence continue to cover the spirit soul even after the loss of the gross physical body.
    They do not stop at the time of death.

    Mystics can even leave their gross bodies and their brains behind and travel around the universe at will in their subtle forms.

    The proposal that the brain produces psychic activity is not supported by the Vedic version.

    • Yes, you are correct. Thank you for pointing that out. The psychic dimension only closes down for the awakened soul and also for all souls at the death (nirodah) of the universe when all unawakened souls enter susupti. It is this “death” of the universe that deep, dreamless sleep is compared to.

  5. I find that the beauty of embodied life, despite it’s obvious ills, is that it lends itself to such marvelous states of mystical experience. I find that it does so in relation to the body, brain, not despite it. What experience do we have of consciousness not relative to a body? Even the mystic has a body through which profound states are experienced.

    How then do we better honor those experiences by imagining them independent of the body? Does it truly elevate those mystical experiences by detaching them from an embodied consciousness? I have yet to hear of one experience of consciousness that is disembodied… And yet we continue to discuss dualism as if mind/ consciousness is vastly superior if disengaged from it’s relationship to the soma. Is not the beauty of embodied life that it can and DOES produce such profound states? Who can give any distinction between mind and soul besides the soul’s purported independence from the body? I seems to me that this is a mere fanciful distinction that succeeds more at belittling embodied life than at glorifying consciousness/soul.

    I wonder sometimes if a dualism that distinguishes consciousness from the body does so solely out of an antiquated loathing for the soma. I also think it is important to remember that Descartes argument is an epistemological one.. He was attempting to show something is knowable even in a world in which the objects of perception are not. He accomplished that, but was never able to successfully argue his way out of solipcism. His own attempts to extend towards divinity outside of his own conscious experience were considered failed.

    I do find this an important discussion given that so much of spiritual life seems to hinge on the necessity of a disembodied life. How is this more Important than embodied mysticism?

    • I think it is important to take seriously the experience of mystics in terms of how they describe consciousness, rather than an analysis of it from someone who has not had the experience, such as a neuroscientist. The mystics’ experience is also closely related to their ability to distance themselves from bodily and mental demands.

      • That is true, but I think most devotees cannot disconnect from bodily pain easily in my experience. They are dependent on modern science to help them ease their bodily pain when in trouble. That makes it hard for lay practitioners like me to attack science all around, knowing that when intense physical pain is there, relief is provided by medicine that functions on materialism.
        Personally I think without the practice of intense yoga(experience of the soul mentioned in the sixth chapter) where you detach yourself from physical pain, it is only possible for very very few devotees like SP or bhisma (sitting on the bed of arrow) to disconnect from the pain. St Francis also had a lot of physical difficulty, but he could smiling accept all with grace. Perhaps there is some fluidity in the relationship between body and the soul and strict compartmentalization is good in theory, but hardly lived in practice.

      • I agree that not having the experience and having to arrive at some understanding of pure consciousness while feeling uncertain of this possibility is a challenge. I wonder sometimes how sadhakas do not have these doubts or do not voice them very explicitly? Anyone else chime in? Sraddha is no small accomplishment, I find. How lucky I consider devotees that do NOT have these doubts and can immerse themselves with such faith.

        I strive to have experience and hope that my persistence combined with my inquiry and confusions will warrant the necessary mercy and sympathy needed to argue ‘from the inside’ you might say. But I must say, I have firm faith in the experience mystics have. I am just questioning the necessity of pure consciousness as distinct from the body as a foundation for such an experience.

        All this said Gurudeva, distancing oneself from bodily and mental demands does not necessarily equate not having them. So I ask you, having the experience what of that experience makes it evident that there is a consciousness that is distinct from the body? Would that same experience lose something of its beauty, profundity or value if it was the experience of an embodied human?

        I ask these questions because I have very little faith in my devotional life and I am literally very insignificant on this path, but I DO believe in you. You are my main pramana.

        • If the experience was merely an outgrowth of the monistic naturalism metaphysic, the loss would be eternal life and a purposeful world. One is free to reason that the experience of the mystic (self and God realization) is not what those who experience it say it is, but that would be at least as much of a leap of faith as it would to be to concur with the mystics as to what they consider their experience to be. Why so much faith in monistic naturalism, especially when it comes to consciousness. Neuroscience is nowhere near understanding consciousness, despite the posturing of people like Daniel Dennet. As cited in the article, even his peers like Searle have dismissed him, and Searle is also a monistic naturalist. Consciousness is the final frontier for modern science, and it is on this frontier that it will be converted to mysticism, but not without adding something to the discussion. Such is my faith.

          Otherwise I do not think that there is anything that I could say about my experience that could not be interpreted through the lens of monistic naturalism.

        • I think the faith in naturalism is based in the evidence we do have that the mental functioning, which in humans is called reflexive consciousness, is highly correlated with brain functioning. That is not to say that consciousness cannot have independent existence from the brain and central nervous system, but there is little evidence to support that.

          I believe your experience… But the problem with this kind of discussion is that the evidence can never really be discussed. The same happens in schools of psychology when the unconscious is envoked, no one can argue with that level of subjective evidence.

          You haven’t said this yet, but faith in these topics has less to do with having a direct experience as evidence, but loving and believing in someone who has. I guess that is where I would have to admit my frailty… I am prone to believe you, having experienced your presence and integrity.

        • I think the faith in naturalism is based in the evidence we do have that the mental functioning, which in humans is called reflexive consciousness, is highly correlated with brain functioning.

          Correlation is one thing, saying they are the same thing is quite another. And correlation is assumed in the spiritual world view to begin with.

        • There is also some pretty interesting evidence in the reincarnation domain about the continuation of consciousness. Although retrieved memories are dubious, the amount of data is pretty compelling. I will try to find the resource.

        • The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences by Holden. 30 years of research data concerning the coninuation of consciousness seperatel from the body. It is a textbook used at SFSU in the philosophy department.

        • It is also worth noting that neuroscientist Dr.Jill Bolte Taylor, whose video “Stroke of Enlightenment” is in the Harmonist archives, was converted from naturalism to a spiritual worldview through her experience. She travels the world speaking about it.

  6. I was meditating on the question I asked, “What would be lost in an embodied mysticism?” GM answered,

    the loss would be eternal life and a purposeful world

    I think the loss of eternal life is significant, but might that not just be our fear of our finitude? Also, our purposeful world would also be a loss, but can’t there be purpose without eternity and pure consciousness?

    But during my mediation, I realized what would be the biggest loss for me. In all of these discussions, in which I like to often play the devil’s advocate (a strange phrase that suggests non-conformity is demonic), I realized that my main purpose is to relate to Gurumaharaja. I know that this sort of discussion is what he wants from us and I want so badly to be related to him. So if there was no pure consciousness independent of the body, my meditation if and when it becomes pure would amount to no more than the solipsism I disdain in Descartes. I would be left alone in an internal world of my own objects unrelated to any real other! That would mean no Krsna, no friends, no real play, and worst of all, no Gurumaharaja. This is a cost too high for me. Even if it were true it would not be a desirable subjective experience. To give up real others and real relationships is too costly. I would rather give up eternity than an independent consciousness through which I can relate with other entities. I guess that is the point of the abheda part of our theology.

    It is interesting that I didn’t find my answer in the content of the discussion but the process of the discussion itself.

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