Thursday, May 28, 2015

Follow the Heart, but How?

Spiritual and self-help literature often advises people to "follow their heart". What it means is: go with your feelings.

This advice bears some close investigation.

In an infant, feelings are, to borrow a phrase from the visual field, monochromatic. They are of a single flavor.  Either the infant is happy, or sad, or fearful, etc.  There aren't multiple conflicting feelings which have to be resolved.

As the infant grows up, and even in some advanced mammals like a pet dog, it is possible to have multiple feelings at the same time, usually as a result of learning.  The child or the pet dog might be desirous of a candy, but might be apprehensive of what the parent/master would do or say.

In fact, growth or domestication are synonymous with restraining one's instincts, or in moderating the expression of one's feelings.

The more a man gets socialized, the more stops are put on just acting out on one's feelings.  A man might want to make love to the beautiful woman he just saw on the road, right then and there, but extensive socialization tells him to behave himself.  An overweight woman might want to eat another tub of ice-cream, but her knowledge about the calories she would consume and would need to burn via exercise, makes her give up the idea.

A pet which acts out and has no fear of the master, or a human which does not restrain himself, is called wild or a brute.  The unruly pet is taken away and put down, and an unruly human ("a law unto himself") is imprisoned.

The advice to follow one's heart assumes that there is a dominant "pure heart" whose voice one must listen and act upon.  That one should disregard the "mind", and the socialization-caused "fears" and just follow one's "inner truth".   But it is logically obvious that if the "pure heart" is  indeed dominant, or if the feeling is without its opposite, one will act it out without the master's advice or the self-help literature. 

It is only in cases of conflict that one seeks guidance.  In cases of conflicting feelings, it is generally true that one feeling is the instinctual one, and the conflicting one is due to the force of socialization.  The self-help advice is to act out one's instincts and disregard the "imaginary" consequences (they won't be imaginary for very long, unfortunately).  The fear of imprisonment if one steals an attractive watch from a shop window is about an "imaginary" future, but that imagination is not without a foundation.

Some seemingly intelligent and educated gurus like Mr Jaggi Vasudev or Osho were fond of extorting their followers to see their fears as born of their past and projected into their future, and hence unreal (!).  Yes, they are unreal now, but try to disregard your fears, and see how soon the law or the society catches up with you.

To follow one's heart is good advice only if one has become over-socialized, is overly scared and worried, and is hesitant to take even little risks.  But for the vast majority of humankind, to live with conflict between the instincts and the social influences is a form of discontent (ref Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents") that has to be endured.

Self-help and Spirituality advise a regression to the id, when its conflict with the superego becomes too much to handle for the ego.  In such cases, the id and the superego are both strong and constantly in opposition.  It is important to lessen this friction (e.g. by sublimating one's instincts, or by finding valid avenues for their natural fulfillment) but it is not recommended to want to be free of this friction altogether.

Everybody wants to revert to the simplicity of childhood and to the way of heartful living.  But one forgets that a child had the protection and supervision of its parents.  The parents were an externalized superego.  An adult, to protect himself, has to internalize his superego.  He can no longer depend on his parents to guide or protect him throughout the day.  And therefore, he is comprised and burdened with both the child-nature and the parent-nature.

This burden and this friction is entirely natural.  To seek to be free of this burden is to misunderstand our nature and to indulge in fantasy.

FAQs, continued

Original FAQs article

Q: Do you recommend Goenka Vipassana meditation?

A: I get this question quite frequently in response to my oft-read critique of Goenka Vipassana.  In my opinion, attending a Goenka Vipassana retreat can be an instructive experience.  Most people have not had the opportunity to practice attention manipulation for a period of 10 days.  If nothing else, being distraction-free (no TV, no smartphone, no internet, no news, no social media) will probably "detox" your brain.  Being distraction-free and silent for ten days can bring up thoughts and feelings which otherwise remain submerged.  I recommend the retreat with the proviso that one should be slighly careful not to get brainwashed by Mr Goenka's lectures, his teachers and his organization.  They don't try too hard and are quite gentle, but given that many people fall into their archaic Buddhist ideology, the risk is quite real.

Q: If not Goenka meditation, what type of meditation do you practice and recommend?

A: I am assuming you want to practice meditation to become more peaceful and gain more insight into yourself and into your environment.  A calmness practice, or a retreat from the bustle of civilization, might help.  Sitting in nature, reading a classic, watching a slow film, taking a long walk, fishing, sitting silently and observing one's thoughts or breathing, going on a solo hike or road trip, ... are some example activities.  If you have time and if your environment permits, you could perform some experiments to learn more about how your mind works: staying silent for a few days, being blindfolded or ear-plugged for an entire day or more, being in an unfamiliar surrounding, being in a poor neighborhood or a hospital or a burial ground or a police station or a strip club or a courthouse, stretching your psychological and physical comfort zones, ...

A Refutation of Solipsism: A comment

Anonymous (May God bless his soul) comments on the last post:

"After thousands of years of human consciousness there is still no 'evidence' (it is not an absolute truth let alone a fact) that physical substance is metaphysical and nothing actually exists -- except consciousness that is somehow magically independent of physical neural memory banks. So James Randy still has his million bucks.

Perhaps it's time to start looking for the facts, because not doing so has perpetuated a mass on nonsensical suffering.

So far all the evidence points to awareness always being conscious of some form of content, whether it be experiential knowledge (sense data) or mental images fabricated from sense data memories stored in neurons. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. No one has ever proven they were 'conscious of nothing' whilst unconscious. No disembodied consciousness has ever made itself known independent of or to a physical brain.

Zen practitioners 'claim' to experience consciousness without content, but only after many years of intensive meditation. Basically they psyche themselves into a dissociated state. They train the brain to ignore, become unawareness of, it's own bodily sense data. How senseless is that? And all the while they remaining dependent on their brain to maintain that pointless content-less consciousness. For what benefit?

Instead of growing into a more intelligent benign less aggressive human being they cop out, or protest human suffering by showing how they can violently set themselves on fire without writhing in agony -- and still -- leave no 'evidence' that their senseless consciousness lived on independently of that innocent body they burnt to death?

Try pondering why and how a formless consciousness would dream up an illusory physical realm so well it can no longer prove it's not really here? Why? And what would trigger it's first imaginings out of it's formless metaphysical state? And how would consciousness even know it existed in a no thing world with no feedback loop of experiences to reflect on?

If this physical world really is a metaphysical world of no things, then prove it and claim James Randy's million bucks. Otherwise you're just wasting your intelligence writing about unprovable metaphysical nonsense."

A Refutation of Solipsism, continued

Original post.

A commentator responds:
According to Vedanta the world is created by the universal mind, even so called my mind is really part of the universal mind, when your mind goes to sleep it just means part of the universal mind has switched to a different state. It does not mean the whole universal mind goes in abeyance. 
"Universal Mind" is presumably a translation of Brahman, a concept notoriously difficult to explain.  It is frequently stated to be beyond comprehension and beyond thought and beyond the mind and language, but for a phenomenon so unknowable, the sages sure do know a lot about it:
Several mahā-vākyas or "Great Sayings" from the Upanisads indicate what the principle of Brahman is
  • brahma satyam jagan mithya  (Asangoham,18): "Brahman is real, the world is unreal"    
  • ekam evadvitiyam brahma (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1): "Brahman is one, without a second"    
  • prajnānam brahma (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3): "Brahman is knowledge"
  • ayam ātmā brahma (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5): "The Self is Brahman"
  • aham brahmāsmi (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10): "I am Brahman"
  • tat tvam asi (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 et seq.): "Thou art that" ("You are Brahman")
  • sarvam khalvidam brahma (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1): "All is truly Brahman"
  • sachchidānanda brahma: "Brahman or Brahma is existence, consciousness, and bliss"
Leaving aside the epistemological quandary (if something is unknowable, what's the basis of statements made about its qualities or even its existence?), the original article's argument about the inconsistency of solipsism for an Atman (the individual mind or soul) can be applied with some minor modifications to the Advaita Vedanta's formulation of Brahman (the "universal mind") as well:
  1. State data is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.  
  3. The "universal mind" contains the state data of the entire universe.
  4. Hence "universal mind" contains matter.
  5. Hence, matter exists before its creation.
  6. Hence Advaita Vedanta is inconsistent.
  7. Hence wrong.
In fact, this line of argument is strong enough to refute "the soul remembering past lives" phenomenon as well.  The "soul" is generally conceived of as an immaterial "essence" which exists before the birth of a human, and survives human death.  After the soul attaches itself to a new human body, it is claimed that in some cases the human being can remember some things from his "past life".
  1. Memory is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.
  3. The brain stores the memories acquired during its existence.
  4. Matter is required for preservation and transmittal of memories after the destruction of an organism (specifically, the destruction of its brain).
  5. Hence, the "soul" needs a material medium (for transmittal from the brain) and a material substrate (for storage).
  6. Hence the "soul" is not purely immaterial.
  7. Hence the conception of "soul" as immaterial is inconsistent, and wrong.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Refutation of Solipsism

G E Moore published his "A Defense of Common Sense" in 1925.  It is a long, philosophical essay arguing against skepticism, idealism and solipsism.

It is hard to read.  Having been a solipsist myself - and I am embarrassed to admit it - I feel that a more succinct and cogent response is necessary to refute the non-dualist/Advaita-vedantic position regarding the objective/independent existence of the world.

The non-dualist position is known as drishti-srishti-vada, SSV from here on, and is actually quite easy to refute.  The position is a cousin of theories like idealism, "essence precedes existence", "perception causes creation" etc.

The position states, in essence:
The world only exists when it is perceived.
This has been the position taken by spiritual heavyweights of the last century such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, and (in an oblique way) Jiddu Krishnamurti ("You are the world").

Let us define each of the terms used in the quoted sentence:

The world is the universe containing the galaxies, stars, planets, the sun, the moon and the earth and all things thereof.  The universe is: space-matter-energy and all things thereof.  We all understand what the universe is, so no further elucidation will be provided.

To Exist is to interact with other existent objects, to occupy space and to flow through time.

To Be Perceived is a special kind of interaction: with human sense organs (or perhaps even animal sense organs, or with a "life" form), directly or indirectly (indirectly e.g. via a measuring/recording apparatus).  In a way all interactions leave an imprint on the other objects, but to be perceived is to have an interaction with a living or sensory apparatus.

Now, we can argue about whether object X exists or not in a reasonable manner, by evaluating evidence for its interaction with other objects or its perception by someone.

But to argue whether the whole universe (i.e. the entire existence) exists or not is obviously not possible in the same way because objects interact with each other in the universe.  The universe doesn't interact with any objects.  There are no other "entities" apart from those contained in the universe, by definition.

But, in a way the universe does interact with objects in one peculiar way: it "provides" space for them to exist.  Hence, if X exists (and X can be anything) the universe does exist as a necessity.


SSV states that the universe exists only when perceived.  Let us take the case of a human perceiving the moon.  According to SSV, when the human is in a coma, or in deep sleep, the moon does not "exist", in fact the entire universe stops existing.  When the human wakes up, the entire universe is created.

I had this idea about refuting SSV in 2002.  When I asked my erstwhile guru (an advaita-vedantin monk) about it, he could not provide a satisfactory response.  In fact, I'm not sure he understood the import of the argument.

The refutation of this peculiar paradigm is as follows:

1. The world is perceptible at some time (e.g. right now).
2. The world is imperceptible at some times, e.g. during deep sleep and coma.
3. The world re-appears after the imperceptible period.
4. There is evidence of the imperceptible world having carried on its affairs during its disappearance. 

To be more specific:

1. I am lying down on my bed. The time is now 12noon by my clock. The world is perceptible.
2. I go to sleep at 1pm by my clock.  The world is imperceptible (hence non-existent as per SSV).
3. I wake up and see the time on my clock as 5pm.  The world has reappeared, my body and clock all being a part of it.  Other objects show the passage of time as well: the clothes hung to dry have now dried up, the phase of the moon has changed, and innumerable other evidences of the passage of time are there.

Now it is clear and obvious that all the changes (except my own physical and mental states due to sleeping, dreaming etc.) which I perceive at 5pm are exactly as if I had stayed awake and kept perceiving the world.  This bears repeating: The state of affairs at 5pm is exactly as if the world had continued to be perceived and hence to exist, with all the concomitant processes (trains running on their tracks, airplanes flying to their destinations, planets traveling in their trajectories, etc.) during the 1pm-5pm period.

It seemingly makes no difference to the world whether I was perceiving it or not.

The state of affairs observed at 5pm is independent of my state of consciousness from 1pm-5pm.

There are only two possible explanations: either the world continued to exist and time continued its passage while being imperceptible (which non-SSV adherents, i.e. most people, would accept as obvious), or someone is playing a really cool trick where "he" keeps track of every little object and transition and makes the world seem exactly as if the world had continued to exist while it was not.

The second explanation implies that when I stopped perceiving the world, the state data of the world got stored somewhere, and when I perceived the world again, the state data of the world now conformed to the effects of the passage of time.

The question is: where was the state data being stored, if not in the universe?  While the universe was in "abeyance", who (and it could well be a device or an "energy" or a "universal mind", rather than a human or alien entity) knew that, e.g., clothes were drying outside my home?

Now we will demolish SSV via the following propositions:
  1. State data is information.
  2. Storage of information requires matter.  
  3. Information storage is necessary to recreate the world  after its abeyance.
  4. Hence matter existed while the universe was supposedly in abeyance.
  5. Hence universe existed while supposedly in abeyance.
  6. Hence SSV is inconsistent.
  7. Hence wrong.

In fact, if you think about it, the easiest way to store the state data is for the universe to continue to exist and have the state data continue in situ (in the objects themselves).  This is a fit case for Occam's razor.  SSV requires an extra set of assumptions without offering any additional predictability about phenomena.  It fails the test.