For the past few weeks I was trying to understand the approach to the Truth by Western Philosophy and Science. I am far from getting a good grasp of the number of ‘ism’s of Western Philosophy. I thought I will just jot down some of my observations. I might have misunderstood the whole approach of Western Philosophy. I will be very thankful if someone can point out any if you find.
The first thing I noticed in Western Philosophy was its too much reliance on persons. A study of Western Philosophy is the study of a historical list of philosophers and their ideas. I was disappointed at the absence of a consistent development. It is more like a bunch of blind men groping in the dark searching for a black cat which is not there. It was all just speculation after speculation without any consistency. Initially I thought may be I was approaching the wrong sources. Then I did a survey of the various popular books and not so popular books. Everywhere it was just a chronological list of speculations of individuals. It was very disappointing.
One thing that I found was there was repeated echos from different people of ideas similar to Advaita Vedanta – right from the pre-Socratic Eleatic philosophers like Xenophanes, Parmenides and Zeno to later philosophers like Spinoza. Several ‘ism’s like hedonism, monism, idealism, solipsism, etc were incomplete distant echoes of concepts, which are very well developed in Vedanta.
Let me try to put some of the concepts in the Vedanta in the Western terms and try to compare.
The first thing in Vedanta is the authority of the Vedas.
Western Philosophy has the beautiful concept of Falsifiability. Only something which can be judged impersonally can come under the purview of science. I remember my first set theory class in high school where I was taught that a set is a “definite” collection of elements. For example, a collection of “interesting” books cannot be a set. Because there is no impersonal standard to judge how interesting a book is. Similarly, there are several things that cannot be judged at all. For example, “Good begets good”, “Am I awake or dreaming now?”, etc. These are somethings which cannot be judged and measured on absolute terms. So this cannot come under Science. This automatically removes morality, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, etc. out of Science. Philosophy includes all these things and also some auxiliary tools like epistemology (theory of knowledge), logic, etc.
The Vedas are also very clear of their domain of operation. Anything that comes under Science as per the same definition given above according to Western Philosophy does not come under the domain of the Vedas. This is defined in the shat linga (six indicators) of the mimaasa method of interpreting the Vedas. The pramaana shastra (theory of knowledge) covers the epistemology in the Vedic system. The purport of the Vedas is to act as the aagama pramaana (scriptural source of knowledge) for topics for which the pratyaksha pramaanas (the five organs of senses and their extending instruments as the source of knowledge) have no access. The auxiliary pramaanas like anumaana (inference), upamaana (illustration), etc can work only based on the pratyaksha and aagama pramaanas. Some topics which come under Western Philosophy like aesthetics, which are very personal, is not touched by the Vedas. All impersonal concepts that are not “falsifiable” come under the domain of the Vedas. For example, “Does the individuality continue after death of the body?” This question cannot be judged based on the knowledge given by the five sense organs.
When the Western Philosophy relies on mere speculation for topics that are outside the domain of the sense organs, the Vedas step in as the final authority on these topics. The Vedas provide two sets of axioms that cannot be judged, leave alone refuted. We don’t have the faculty to prove or disprove the axioms of the Vedas. They are outside the domain of the sense organs. One set of axioms is for the vyavahaarika satya (empirical reality). The other set of axioms is for the paramaarthika satya (absolute reality). The two sets of axioms are bridged by the concept of maaya. Based on these two sets of axioms, the Vedas build up the philosophy in a logical and self consistent manner. In simplistic term, the empirical axioms form the Dvaita philosophy, the absolute axioms form the Advaita philosophy and with the bridge it forms the Vishishtadvaita philosophy. Any philosopher who develops theories and corollaries based on the Vedas cannot contradict any of the axioms of the Vedas. Thus, the Vedas prevent all unfounded speculations in the air which is the source of all confusion and conflict in the Western Philosophy.
Now let me present some concepts in Western Philosophy, which are close to Vedanta and how the Vedanta fills some of the gaps in those concepts.
The key to Vedanta is this concept called “sorrow”. The human being feels sorrow sometimes in his life, which he wants to be free from. This unconditional freedom from all sorrow is the one thing all human endeavor is after. Vedanta’s claim is that this can be attained only by the knowledge of the Reality. Thus philosophy has a down-to-earth purpose in everyday life for everyone. Many of the open questions in Western philosophy can be answered if this is understood.
Monism says only one thing exists. There are different kinds of monism. Materialistic monism (materialism) says that all that exists is matter only. Life, mind and consciousness are considered as products of matter. There are concepts like Emergentism which try to throw in some jargon without explaining how. Mentalistic monism (idealism) says that only mind exists. This leads logically to solipsism which says that only my mind exists. Advaita Vedanta sits one level still above. It says only Consciousness exists. There is no parallel to this in Western Philosophy. The term Absolute monism is coined for this. Both Western philosophers and Vedanta reject materialistic monism because that would bring an end to all arguments and lead to fatalism. That would throw out of the window all ethics and purposefulness of life. Still it will not solve the problem of sorrow. It leads to absurdity. Solipsism says everything is in my mind. This is unacceptable to Western Philosophy because then also there is no purpose of anything. But this is not the objection in Vedanta. Vedanta says, even if you take this stance, still you have your problem with your sorrow. So this does not solve your problem. Also, as you are able to objectify the mind, you cannot be the mind. If you are not the mind, then it is not monism. Vedanta is not against this concept, but it says this is not the absolute reality. As long as there is subject-object duality, it cannot be called as monism.
Hedonism says the goal of life is happiness. Vedanta does not object to this. But it says, “If you are looking for happiness in the material world, you will not find it. Only the knowledge of the Truth will give you absolute unconditional happiness.” So the goal is acceptable. But the material world as the means is not acceptable.
Idealism says that the external world does not exist. It says that the ultimate nature of reality is ideas based on the mind. If everything is in the mind, then it has to be in my mind. So this reduces to solipsism which we already discussed. But Western Philosophy always treats Idealism and Solipsism as different, which I did not understand how.
Interestingly, all the fallacies of Zeno are what is called as maaya in Vedanta. When you try to understand the concept of infinity, you will have to face the fallacy of how the infinite and the finite can coexist. This is called as maaya in Vedanta. All the fallacies of Zeno are different illustrations of this concept of maaya.
As everything in Western Philosophy is based on personal speculation, I find it merely a huge collection of “ism”s talked about by different people. As far as I have read, I find it very incoherent, incomplete and unfounded. I would be very thankful is someone can help me to understand it better.