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Natural Realism And The Contact Theory Of Perception – Part II


Read part I here.

The author now looks at Indian view on perception. He reiterates that it is a paradigm going in a different direction; and the criteria of Western philosophy are not applicable in proving or disproving the Indian view. The major considerations are of course to give an alternative and better explanation to reality. This view not only transcends contemporary science but has the capacity to correct some of the concepts that underlie the scientific endeavour. In the Indian tradition, the philosophical position of Representationalism is altogether absent. The closest that an Indian philosophy has come to it is a school which is the Sautantrika school of Buddhism.

In this part, we will see the position of Indian Darshanas or six systems of philosophy on the core questions related to the Self, mind, matter, causality, embodiment, liberation, and so on, to clearly understand the contact theory of perception. The contact theory or Direct Realism, to reiterate, is the experience of the objects in an instantaneous and direct manner without any transformations of the intervening medium.

Self, Mind, Matter, and Time

The Western tradition does not use the word ‘soul’ and there is mixing up of the words, ‘self’, ‘consciousness’ and, ‘mind’.‘ The results are that certain issues of philosophy, such as the mind-matter problem, become muddied due to the occurrence of an indiscriminate mixing up of the categories.

In the Indian tradition, the cognizer (purusha) and the cognized (prakriti) belong to two distinct categories with essential characteristics of sentience or consciousness (chaitanya) and inertness (jadatva) respectively. Mind and matter belong to the category of inert prakriti as distinct from the category of sentient purusha to which the self belongs. The self, as the cognizer of objects, is different from mind and matter, the latter being two modes in which objects of cognition appear. These two modes of presentations reveal the legitimate furniture of objective reality.

In the praxis of the Indian tradition, the nature of an object never changes. What produces change in an object is time that presents objects sequentially in their various facets. When the circular shape of a coin changes to a square one, there is no creation or destruction of any shapes. Thus, the law of identity (a thing as itself) stays constant and yet the change is possible as a showing forth of different attributes. It is Time that drapes itself, as it were, over unchanging objects to present the dynamism and change. It is for this reason that Bhartrhari says, in the first verse of the Vakhypadiyam, that the creative power of Reality is Time.

The Word and The World- ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’

Nouns, verbs, and all other kind of words have four stages – the para (Brahman stage), pasyanti (incipient ideation stage), madhyama (effort for articulation stage) and vaikhari (audible stage). The first three stages are beyond an ordinary person enveloped in ignorance. The para stage of speech is like internal eternal light and by its true intuition a man attains salvation. In the world of objects, Turiya is the state of Brahman, Prajna that of objects in their undifferentiated unmanifest state, Taijasa the sphere of ideated objects, and Visva is the sphere of gross physical objects. It is not difficult to see the correlation of the word to the world in Indian traditions.

The madhyama stage wherein meanings of words appear in the mind and the vaikhari stage wherein they appear as manifest objects – is the key to grasp the relation between mind and matter. Vivarta-vada of Advaita explains the paradoxical relationship between them. Vivarta indicates the emergence of an effect from a cause without there being any transformation in the cause. It points to the pre-existence of the effect in its entirety in the cause. The apparent difference between them must belong to some paradoxical power existing in reality- this power is maya. The self perceives the eternal object through two different modes of cognition. For the self, the mind is an instrument to think about the object while the sense-organs are instruments for perception of the object. Thus, mind and matter are two conditions of the same thing, the one appearing as thought and the other as an individual object in the world. It is maya that makes the same object apprehended through the two different modes of cognition as different.

In the Indian tradition, therefore, there is rejection of the idea of language having a physical substrate. Instead, language is coterminous with Consciousness, the Ground of the Universe. At its most primal level -the speech stage of Para or the object-stage of Turiya, it is luminous and same with Brahman. Grammar can be a route to salvation too in Indic traditions! The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides and recent philosopher Spinoza seem to have glimpsed something similar. However, they stand alone in the western traditions.

Mind Independence of The Perceived World

The Cartesian notion of mind and matter say whatever object is known or knowable first-hand belongs to the realm of mind; and it follows from this principle that for an object to be a real object, it would have to be unknowable (‘noumena’ or the contemporary ‘non-linguistic world’). If this notion remains, the perceived world has lost something of its intrinsic character and remains as one pole of a tensional duality that it has artificially constructed. This is the crux of the problem: philosophers of the West have been unable to comprehend that the term ‘unknowable object’ is devoid of reference. The expression is an illegitimate verbal construction generating the illusion of having a reference when there is none, like the expression, ‘son of a barren woman’.

In Indian traditions, a conceived object cannot be unknowable; and if it is unknowable, there is no conceiving. In the darshana of Yoga, such illegitimate verbal constructions, which are devoid of reference, are known as ‘vikalpa’. In the tradition of Indian Logic (Tarka), all objects are ‘namable and knowable.’ This is an inviolable principle which is universally applicable to all objects. In the light of the overarching principle of the namableness and knowableness of objects, the sophistry of the artificial reality-divide dissolves and we return to the one world that we all experience and live in and refer to by means of language. This is a clear position of Indian traditions that the world is independent of the mind.

Illusions and Hallucinations

The realms in which two conditions of objects appear to us are the realm of mind and the realm of world, the taijasa and vishwa respectively. The objects manifested in the mind are private. Illusions and hallucinations are in the realm of taijasa and not to vishwa. It is because the object seen in both taijasa and vishwa is the same object appearing in two different conditions that the object appearing in taijasa has the potential to appear with the same intensity and vividness as an object seen in the world. However, the object being private to the individual, it belongs to the realm of ideation.

The individual self has no power to manifest these objects in the world, in the realm of vishwa, by the mere will of the individual self. What then brings forth these objects into the world and holds them in place to make them available for public perception? In the Indian tradition, this power belongs to the Unobstructed Consciousness which forms the Ground of the Universe. It is known by the name Brahman, also referred to as the Immutable Akshara and the Great Imperishable.

An object having a Datum of Consciousness does not prevent it from being mind-independent if its mind-independency stems from it manifesting in the public space of the world without individual power to bring about such a manifestation. The idea that an object requires to be without a datum of consciousness for it to be mind-independent is an ill-begotten idea stemming from Cartesian misconceptions about mind and matter.

The Embodiments of The Self, Perception, Liberation, and Reincarnation

The self, being of the nature of consciousness, is self-effulgent. And it has, by virtue of its self-effulgence, the capacity to reveal objects directly and instantaneously. The absence of ubiquitous perception indicates that there is some primal covering over the self which obstructs its natural revealing power from revealing the objects of the world. In Indian philosophy, this obstruction over the self the body itself. Embodiment is three-layered. At the most primal layer, it constitutes a covering over the self. This covering is essentially of the nature of sleep. The middle-layer is the layer of ideation, the realm of mind. The outermost layer is the layer of the gross physical body through which the embodied-self comes to be a creature in the world. The three layers are known as bodies with different names: mula-sharira (seed-body), sukshuma-sharira (subtle-body) and sthula-sharira (gross body) respectively.

The paradox of embodiment is that the embodiment of the self does not, in truth, exist. How can something arise in Consciousness-the ground of all universe, and then contain it? The embodiment of the self comes about not through a spatiotemporal physical process but through a cognitive condition whereby the self becomes morphed to the body, as it were, and cognizes the body to be the self. This erroneous idea is the mithya-gnana superimposed on the self and the body. This makes one see the body manifested in the realm of the world as the self. An idea in the mind is the same as the body apprehended in the world as the self. As seen before, the idea in the mind and its corresponding matter in the world are the same appearing in two different modes of cognitive presentations.

The idea of the self’s embodiment through a cognitive condition is central to the Indian tradition; it forms a core tenet in all the six darshanas or systems of philosophy, though with slight technical variations. Embodiment is by an erroneous cognitive condition; hence, by right-knowledge confers liberation. Embodiment persists so long as the erroneous knowledge continues. For, even when the physical body undergoes destruction, the notion of the body would continue to persist in the realm of the mind. The Self, still equipped with the power of thinking, would consider the destruction of the body as a loss, and crave to be in possession of a body. In the Indian tradition, this craving, along with the law of causation that bears upon the embodied soul’s moral actions in its past births, results in reincarnation of the self in another body.

It is within this three-fold structure of embodiment that we must look for the instruments of perception. For, even though the self has the capacity to reveal objects by virtue of its intrinsic effulgence, maya obstructs its power of revealing. The innermost layer is the layer in which the clearing in the covering of maya appears; the middle layer is the layer which actively reaches out to the object with the help of the instruments of perception; and the outermost layer comprising the physical body is the layer that constitutes the seat of experience.

Seen and Unseen Causes, Karma, and Experiencing the World

Perception and experience of the world occurs to the individual self when there is a clearing in the veil of maya. The clearing appears by the Wheel of Causation operating in nature or prakriti. The causality that operates in them is of two kinds: the seen and the unseen. The causality that operates between physical objects, and which is determined by the natures of the objects themselves is causality of the seen kind.

The causality of the unseen kind is that in which the immediate effect of an action is invisible. But all actions of conscious agents do not produce unseen effects; it is only those actions that have a moral dimension to them that result in unseen effects. The effect of an individual’s moral action is apurva, meaning that which did not exist before and is newly born. It is the result of either a virtuous action or a morally transgressive action, and its effect in the world surfaces at a future time when the conditions for it to fructify are satisfied.

The total of the un-fructified apurvas of an individual is the individual’s adrshta; also referred to as past karma since it is the net balance of the accumulated effects of past actions held in store for future fructification. Shankara, in commenting on the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad, in the context of a man’s rebirth, explains it as follows: ‘He has adopted the whole universe as his means to the realization of the results of his work; and he is going from one body to another to fulfil this object.’ And as Satapata Brahmana says, ‘A man is born into the body that has been made ready for him.

There is perfect synchronicity between the world that an individual being perceives and the individual being’s past karma. The Law of Causation (Dharma Chakra or Wheel of Dharma) projects the manifested world in accordance with the collective past karmas of individual beings. An individual within this collective perceives that part of the manifested universe that his past karma entails him or her to experience. The physical body is the seat of this experience, and the regulated uncovering of the veil of maya -the veil of sleep under which the individual being transmigrates, determines that part of the world the individual being will experience.

The Law of Causation does not violate the nature of objects. It is the nature of fire to burn and water to flow; and these natures are part of the law. The unfolding of the manifested world therefore does not violate the physical laws that operate between objects by virtue of their physical natures (dharmas). The causal force of Dharma Chakra acts as an unseen ordering force that determines the boundary conditions of the objects of the world. This is the overarching Law of Causation that the Indian tradition espouses; and it comes from sabda-pramana, the means of knowledge by which the reality beyond the realm of the senses may be known.

The Sole Cause and The Bestowed Cause

In Western philosophy, we have the concept of the First Cause. Thomas Aquinas argued that the universe must be by something that is itself uncaused, and that this Uncaused Cause is God. Vedanta accepts this argument but it goes further still. Firstly, it holds this First Cause to be formless and immutable. It remaining immovable while impelling the universe into motion is the sign of its omnipotence; for its power is such that it effortlessly creates, sustains, and dissolves the universe by its mere proximity. Secondly, it holds the First Cause is also the Sole Cause of the universe.

The premise that the natures of those physical things themselves can explain all physical things drives the empirical sciences. This Charvaka principle used in contemporary science came from the Epicureans of Greece and later by Francis Bacon. It was based on these foundations that Newton and others gave birth to the natural sciences grounded purely in the physical natures of things. While many of these thinkers and scientists spoke of God, such speech was no more than mere lip service as God had no role in the scheme of scientific explanations.

There is an inability to grasp how Ishvara may be the controller of a world in which the natural laws of causality operate. The physical sciences are adequate without invoking God. Western world has never been able to reconcile God with the natural laws of the universe. Many modern Theists of the Western hemisphere tend towards Deism, the philosophical position which holds that God does not intervene in the operations of the world, once created. This position allows one to incorporate one’s belief in God in one’s worldview without having to discard one’s allegiance to empirical science.

In the Indian tradition, Ishvara, the Sole Efficient Cause of the entire universe, controls every aspect of it including the operation of the physical laws. How does Ishvara do it? In what way may we consider the apparently independent existences of objects of the world as dependent existences on Ishvara who is the sole Independent Existence? The closest example cited to illustrate dependent-existence is the case of a reflection in a mirror. The reflection has no existence without the existence of the object of which it is a reflection. Indeed, in both Advaita and Dvaita, this very analogy illustrates the relation between Brahman and the world; and it is the relation of Bimba-Pratibimba, the object and its reflection.

There is a common misconception arising about the ontological (reality) status of the reflection seen in the mirror. The reflection of an object, say of a flower, which seen in the mirror, is unreal because the reflected object is not a real flower. However, the object called ‘image of a flower’ is real because the reflection is truly an image of a flower. In other words, the object is not true to the name ‘flower’ but it is true to the name ‘image of a flower’.

In this world comprising various objects, all these objects may be the reflections (pratibimbas) of Ishvara but they are true to the names they are known by. Hence, they are real. The world objects are all pratibimbas, having no existences by themselves but with their existences derived from, and entirely dependent on, the Bimba, which is Ishvara, the Supreme and Sole Independent Existence. Without Ishvara, the universe and its objects have no capacity to exist, just as in a mirror the reflections have no capacity to exist without there being objects.

It is Ishvara who, through His Absolute Will, presents the various objects as causes and effects without being dependent at any time on any of these things to unfold. Yet the causality seen in the world is not arbitrary or dependent on the whims of a capricious God. This is because they are determined by the natures of the objects themselves as they exist signified by words in their para stage, identical with Brahman.

Ishvara creates the universe out of His knowledge alone, and all the things of the created universe suspend on the veneer of His knowledge alone, having no existence by themselves but being reflections of His omniscience. In Advaita Vedanta, the ultimate relationship between Brahman and the world is indescribable because the world being no other than Brahman, there is no relation between them. But within the sphere of the duality contingent upon the appearance of creation, the Bimba-Pratibimba relationship offers the closest analogy to explicate Brahman’s controllership of the entire universe as its sole Efficient Cause.

The Embodied Self as An Actor and The Arrows of Causality

The division of all things into these two basic categories, the seen and the seer, also called prakriti and purusha, is fundamental to the Indian tradition. Ishvara projects this universe in accordance with the collective adrshtas of beings to confer upon them the fruits of their past actions. The purpose of creation is for seeing and experiencing it. Contemporary philosophy firmly rejects all teleological causes (purpose) in the universe. The universe has no purpose, it screams. It has only operating laws devoid of any larger purpose.

In the Indian tradition, however, the stand is different. Prakriti, being inert, has no purpose by itself. Purpose can exist only in a conscious agent having the power of sentience, intentionality and will. So, ascribing purpose to nature, or holding that the telos of a thing resides in nature itself, is unwarranted going against the nature of prakriti. In the Indian tradition, it requires the presence of purusha for the ascription of a cause in the teleological sense.

And more importantly, the telos (purpose) as conceived in the Indian tradition does not violate the laws of nature because the locus of telos and the locus of the natural laws are two different loci. According to Vedanta however, Ishvara’s creation does not proceed through an assembly of physical parts, as in the case of the production of things by ordinary mortals, but proceeds effortlessly from His omniscience through speech. The Indian tradition holds the appearance of telos to be contextual and not an unconditional truth. Brahman or Ishvara does not create the universe for fulfilling a Divine purpose; for the Divine Being is ever full and there is nothing lacking in His plenitude that He should have a desire and want to fulfill it by creating the universe. The telos of the world arises only in the context of the adrshtas of individual beings. It has no other purpose than the conferment of experiences on individual beings, that is, on the purushas that carry with them the baggage of adrshtas.

Adrshta is then the central thread around which the telos or purpose of the world revolves. Ishvara projects the universe for individual beings to experience the fruits of their past actions. But mere projection of the universe would not result in an engagement-experience; for it would be a mere witnessing of the universe. That is, it will not have the capacity to bring about an engagement of the individual being as an actor in the theatre of the universe. In order that the self may be an actor in the theater, it would have to be an embodied being participating in the events of the universe from within it as an actor. And it is the self’s embodiment, which confers upon the self the status of an actor or being-in-the-world.

It is by an erroneous cognitive condition that the self sees itself as embodied. By its true nature, the self, being all-pervasive, has no containment. The presence of this erroneous cognition generates a certain psycho-physical bodily structure. This is just as an object seen through a prism or an uneven mirror presents a certain skewed form of the object which is not its true form but which persists so long as the object is present. And when the erroneous cognition dispels, one is set free from the shackles of bondage (to the body) and to the cycles of birth and death. This is the idea of embodiment and liberation that is central to the Indian tradition. When there is knowledge of the Self as the underlying reality of the universe, this entire structure gets dissolved though its appearance may persist for some time due to the momentum of the effects of past actions.

In the Indian tradition, the primal obstruction to cognition of the self is a kind of sleep. The unobstructed Self, which appears as the individual self in each being, is the Ground of the Universe and the Sole Efficient Cause of creation as well as sustenance of the universe. But the obstruction that prevents the nature of the Self from being known and causes the phenomenon of embodiment to arise, also hides the nature of the Self as the Sole Cause. In this predicament that the embodied being finds itself in, it not only mistakes the body to be the self but, consequent to the mistaken cognition it considers the causal influences that the objects of the world exert on its body as pertaining to its self.

Thus, the self sees itself as affected by the physical objects of the world. And it also sees itself as possessed of a free-will by which it may exert causal influence on the world through the employment of its motor organs. Thus, the Sole Cause of the universe appears, through the prism of ignorance of an embodied being, as a bi-directional arrow of causality.

The Instruments of Perception

Advaita Vedanta’s theory of perception speaks about a perceptual process in which perception is by the sense organs contacting the object. In Sanskrit, the sense-organs are jnanendriyas. The faculty of perceiving the gross universe cannot be a gross object of the universe because it would make the perceived quality into a representation of the quality existent in the object and not the actual quality of the object itself; and this would generate the logical conundrums of a reality-divide. In the Indian tradition, each sense-organ can sense a substance by means of the distinctive quality; sound in akasha (ether), touch in air, form in fire, taste in water, and odour in earth. These five substances – ether, air, fire, water, and earth – are the five classical elements that find mention in most cultures of the world. The case of judging the elemental status of the five classical elements becomes a classic case of incommensurability between two paradigms.

The mixing and aggregation of the five elements is panchikaranam (quintuplication). According to Indian tradition, only the pure intellect apprehends the pure elements. These pure elements are the tanmatras, which aggregate to form the mahabhutas. The pancha-mahabhutas retain their names as ether, air, fire, water, and earth on account of the predominance of the respective elements in them. The five elements cannot be known through empirical science for they are abstractions as beheld by an unimpeded consciousness.

These five classical elements are commensurate with the five senses, and everything perceived in the universe must be by means of them. And this is true even with respect to our mental conceptions of objects; for an object of mental conception and its corresponding object in the universe are the same object appearing in a different condition of its existence. The Indian tradition would thus hold the so-called elements of the Periodic Table to be not elements in the true sense but as compounds of the five classical elements that compose all objects of the universe.

So, what are the sense organs? The covering of sleep and the consequent phenomenon of embodiment brings about a sense of a limited self. A distance appears between the self (subject) and the object. The internal instruments or the sense-organs are part of the body-spectrum that generates by the erroneous cognition that brings about embodiment. Each sense-organ is a subtle part of the element with which it is commensurate. This is because the sense-organ is nothing but the element itself as it appears split up through the prism of the erroneous-cognition. Thus, the ear is the subtle-part of ether, the skin of the subtle-part of air, the eye of the subtle part of fire, the tongue of the subtle-part of water and the nose of the subtle-part of earth. The sense-organ is no other than the element that stands revealed during perception, so its operation of reaching out to the object is only a notional inferred sense. This notional sense persists in every perceptual act in the state of embodiment.

Thus, perception displays a transparency to the world notwithstanding the presence of the body in between the subject and the object. The body does not stand in between the subject and object but only appears to be so due to the erroneous cognition that causes embodiment and the spectrum of internal senses that it generates. In the scheme of embodiment, the gross physical sense organs are the seats of the subtle sense organs. During this state, the individual being attributes the power of sensing objects to the gross physical sense organs instead of to the subtler senses. The instruments of perception comprise not just the five sense organs but also the mind. For, if the sense-organs reach out to an object but the mind is attentive to some other object, perception of the object does not occur. It requires the mind too to reach out to the object, along with the respective sense organs, for perception of the object to occur.


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