Kant, Buddhism and Sankara

Striving to Answer the Kantian Question

In attempting to answer the Kantian question, we explore some aspects of Eastern thought.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Emanuel Kant entered into this doleful epistemological hellhole posing the famous question: “What can we hope to achieve with reason, when all the material and assistance of experience is taken away?” It is the central question addressed in this blog. How can you create knowledge working from virtually nothing but reason? Kant penned this question over two centuries ago. The question remains unanswered to this day. The question deserves to be raised once more and with even more urgency as Kant did in his time.This raises the additional question of why does the problem remain unsolved? Many of the Germanic philosophers that followed Kant claimed to have had answers but then only in the form of tentative, intuitive and very informal glimpses. Hegel was the most successful. He read elementary and generic forms of reality into and from the historic movement of society. He combined metaphysics with an empirical historicism. The Hegelian perspective has held considerable influence right into the twentieth century, but has stagnated and lost potency in recent times.
In modern times, Aristotle’s Square of Oppositions construct has inspired the development of semiotics. Aristotle’s square of oppositions becomes rebadged as the semiotic square. The basic idea of the semiotic square is that any particular view of reality as a whole can be analysed in terms of the semiotic square. The writings of Algirdas Julien Greimas (Greimas, 1991) provide many examples. In an early work (Moore, 1992), the author outlined his own primitive approach to the semiotic square, at the time.
From our point of view, linguistics is a left side science of the same kind as all the other traditional sciences. It is on the left side that we find an immense variety of languages both natural and artificial. Such languages lend themselves to study using the traditional tools of abstraction, generalisation, empirical measurement, and mathematical modelling. On the other hand, we argue that semiotics is an integral component of our embryonic right side science, the science of the second kind. This semiotic breed of science does not treat the sign as a signifier of something “out there” as does linguistics. Pure semiotics is not concerned with knowing and describing “this and that”. Rather, the objective is to know and describe something that simply just is.
Right side science may have introspective overtones, but this is not its characterisation. The relationship between left and right side science does not lie along any object/subject symmetry. If left side science can be characterised as a science of objects, it does not follow that right side science is merely the science of subject. The knowledge of the Self that is, dies not merely involve knowledge of Self as subject. Self involves both object and subject. Even when Self is considered as object, the subject is always present. This contrasts with the left side perspective where in the case of the thing as object, no subject is present. Left side sciences specialise in what has been called the “view from nowhere”, the “God’s eye view”, the view of the “detached observer”. In right side science the view is from the perspective of the subject or the object, depending on context. The Spectator never quits the Spectacle and the Spectacle never deserts the Spectator. In right side science, there is no desperately isolated and lonely Cartesian moi pensant left sitting on a rock.
Dramatic comrades like Threepio and Artoo abound across the art forms. Don Quixote profusely provides a running commentary on his illustrious deeds of chivalry while Sancho just tags along with his feet never far from the ground. In the comics, Mandrake the Magician, with clever words and a snap of his fingers, baffles everyone with his illusions while dark and silent Luther provides logistical support from the shadows. The common theme is of a couple with the flamboyant character playing the role of a dexterous manipulator of symbols, the symbols having only the most tenuous attachment to the real world. On the opposite side, the other character is rooted in a simpler and simplifying world with the symbol anchored in the semantics of the real despite being strangely mute, or nearly so.
As we have mentioned above, right science has a vocation for semiotics rather than linguistics. If there is any language at play on the right side turf it will be the language of semiotics, not the language of the popular press and the masses. Moreover, the language will be unique as there is only one system of signs. This is the central tenet of this blog and the most dramatic. There can be only one such science, one such System of Signs. This is echoed in central tenant of the ancient science studied by Newton. The tenet, as stated on the emerald tablet, bears repeating:
Tis true without lying, certain & most true
The task before us it to show that there is a unique, universal right side language that plays the role of uniting all scientific knowledge. Morevover, we claim that this universal code can be reverse engineered and will turn out to have exactly the same fundamental structure as the genetic code. Just like Artoo, who only speaks machine language, right side science only speaks in its own machine language; the machine language which is common to all life, the genetic code. Any living thing whatsoever speaks and organises itself in this language. The other dramatic message of this blog is that even the so called inanimate also speaks this language. This is why we will refer to it as the generic code. What is living and what is not, even starts to take on another allure.

Old Science, New Awakenings

Empedocles argued that the Elements were not gods, but rather got their power from the gods. There was a debate over which of the four prevailed over the other three. Heraclitus concurred with Empedocles that it was fire. He associated fire with Zeus. Later, the Stoics also adopted this point of view in their cosmology, where Zeus was the only entity that survived the eternally recurring conflagrations. For Anaximenes, of the four elements air was a god that “comes to be and is without measure, infinite and always in motion”. (Cicero)
Carl Yung saw this structure as an archetype for the gods:
Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level. The archaic triads in the religions of antiquity and of the East are too numerous to be mentioned here. Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion, which in all probability formed the basis of the Christian Trinity. (Jung)
The godhead of Hinduism follows the Three-plus-One archetype where the Hindu trinity is made up of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Whilst the Christian trinity determines a living god with terrestrial manifestations, the Hindu trinity is transcendental. The Hindu trinity represent the three different ways of understanding the ultimate reality,  where ultimate reality as the ultimate Self, reality as singularity corresponds to the allusive Brahman..

A Buffalo’s Hoof for Buttocks

Siddhārtha Gautama eventually obtained enlightenment, but radically different from what his original direction would have indicated. Under a fabled banyan tree he started to contemplate a complete doctrinal break from the ancient Brahman dominated Vedic religion. The notion of a supreme unqualifiable entity above all others, free from all determinations was a lofty notion but in reality, there was no such entity. In fact there could not be. How can the unqualifiable be qualified as supreme as this is a contradiction in terms? The Brahman starts to take on the dimensions of an oxymoron. A new doctrine was emerging in the Gautama’s mind where no entity could be taken to be superior to any other. This doctrine eventually became known as anatta, the Doctrine of Non-Self.

Side Note:
A basic tenet of this book is that religion, and particularly the four major religions, are based on the same underlying reasoning, and logic even, of the right side science that we are researching. In this respect, we are at complete odds with the fundamentalist atheists that abound today. The popular writings of Richard Dawkins (Dawkins, 2008) are a prime example. Dawkins characterises religion as simply a “delusion” and offers his concocted alternative, Evangelical Darwinism.  Dawkins joins Karl Marx, who infamously declared that religion was the “opiate of the people,” a ruse to keep the masses happy while they are being exploited by the ruling classes. Just as for Dawkins, this kind of attack does little to advance knowledge and understanding of religion. Their agenda is not to encourage people to abandon a stultifying dogmatic creed, but rather to swap one dogmatism for another. Dawkins’ Evangelical Darwinism leads to a modern version of Epicurean ism whilst Marxism has already run its course.
 Although not a fervent preoccupation of this blog, the religious dimension cannot be ignored. Instead of being a target for attack and ridicule, religion, its literature, history, and its art, can serve as a very rich source of informal, potentially scientific knowledge, at least for the right side science we are developing. In this respect, Buddhism is at the forefront.  Buddhism is the most difficult of the World religions as it is devoid of a fundamental role for a deity of any kind, As a result, this doesn’t leave much for the enquiring rational mind to latch on to.  In the final score, Buddhist theology becomes the science of Emptiness and so becomes excruciatingly delicate to formalise.
The Buddhist paradigm involves a negation of the ancient Vedic paradigm based on the supremacy of an all-pervading transcendental Brahman. The negation is not a single, simple negation but, to use a heavily misused Hegelian term, it involves a negation of the negation. The first negation totally negated that there can be any absolute hierarchy of beings. There are no absolutes. The Vedas claim the absolute supremacy of the Brahman. There is no transcendental reality. The only absolute truth here is that the Vedas must be wrong and so must be abandoned. However, this simple negation does not characterise the Buddhist paradigm. The first negation merely negates the possibility of any being, God or like creature, can be absolutely superior to any other being. In its perspective, this negates the existence of a transcendent as well as any omnipotent kind of deity as in Christianity. However, it does not negate the possibility of an imminent type of deity, a deity present with other beings but not over-towering. To eliminate that possibility, a second negation is required.
In what follows, only the first negation has been over simplified. No attempt has been made to make corrections. Better to ride with the error than to introduce yet more errors. The discussion at this juncture is only exploratory anyway as we presently lack the tools for a more incisive kind of precision.  We continue blithely onwards.
Legend has it that under the Banyan tree he started to describe a new way of living that he called the Middle Way. He also espoused the basic doctrine of Buddhism in the form of the Four Noble Truths. In so doing, he had discovered a new godhead for a new religion; but in this case, it was a godhead without any transcendent or omnipotent gods.

Buddhism and the Godless Godhead

The First Noble Truth declares that there is absolutely no permanence in the universe, everything changes, and everything eventually perishes. Clearly, such a Noble Truth does not leave much of a career opportunity for gods claiming to be immortal. However, this does not mean that Buddhism is atheist. Deities, demi-gods and deva of all kinds are tolerated as long as they do not claim to be of the imperishable supreme variety. In brief, deities are permitted in Buddhism but are excluded from the doctrine’s godless godhead. Only the First Noble Truth and its accompanying triad of truths, enjoy the status of being supreme and eternal.
The doctrine discovered by Siddhārtha Gautama became known as Buddhism. Buddhism rapidly expanded throughout the Indian subcontinent to become the dominant religion in India for a thousand years.

The problem is central and confronts any budding theological engineer aspiring to construct a World religion. The religion must be based on a Three-plus-One semiotic structure. It will be explained later why this should be the case, but for the moment it suffices to know that that is common practice in theological circles. The central problem is that the One part of the Three-plus-One structure must demand a supreme entity that is impervious to disqualification. (For the moment, we choose not to consider entities of the Jehovah and Allah variety, as they can be a bit tricky.) The best place to start is with the Vedic Brahman, as it is simply the entity the most immune from disqualification possible. Now a possible disqualification of the Brahman is to say that it does not exist. Fortunately, the Vedic Brahman has been engineered to withstand such an ontological onslaught because, as is well known, it is so devoid of qualification that it cannot be determined whether it exists or does not exist; it is beyond such

Clearly, this Brahman is a quite incredible entity. It stands out and above all others and so surely merits being entitled Brahman, the most supreme being of all. However, there is a problem. By considering the Brahman as the Supreme entity, the pinnacle of freedom from qualification, the adept had qualified the unqualifiable. The supreme unqualified being is a walking oxymoron. There cannot be any Supreme Being. Siddhārtha Gautama took his body, mind, and soul to the brink of the non-qualified and come back with the message that there is nothing there. There was no Imperishable One, but only a multiplicity of multiplicity. Everything changes.

Advaita Vedanta is first and foremost philosophical, rather than theological and theist. The philosophy rescues the ancient Vedic Brahman from attack from Buddhism by lifting the argument up to a higher level. Buddhism claims that there is no Supreme Being and, in particular, no Brahman. Advaita Vedanta has no alternative but to accept this argument as being literally true. There is not and cannot be a literal Supreme Being. To overcome this apparent impasse, the philosophy introduces Nirguna Brahman that is so totally lacking in qualification that it cannot be said to be literally a Supreme Being. Moreover, it cannot be said that it is not. Shankara concludes that Nirguna Brahman must be totally beyond comprehension.

 In order to comprehend Brahman, the finiteness and limitations of the human mind must be content with a lower realm of understanding. In this lower realm, Brahman appears as Saguna Brahman, which, unlike Nirguna Brahman, is endowed with determined characteristics. Thus, in principle, Saguna Brahman is knowable and is called Ishvara. The determined characteristics of Ishvara are those of the empirical reality in which we live. Although these characteristics, attributes and properties may appear real, according to Advaita, they are mere illusion produced by a mechanism called maya. The only thing that is real is Nirguna Brahman, which is the only objectively true reality. Advaita Vedanta, philosophically speaking, is monistic; but rather than declaring that Nirguna Brahman is the One, as does ancient Vedism, it must be qualified by what it is not. It is non-dual. The role of the maya mechanism is to maintain non-duality of the only fundamentally real reality, Nirguna Brahman.

What is at play here is a very profound form of relativity. In relativistic physics, it is the speed of light, a cosmological constant that is invariant for all inertial reference frames as explained in the Special Theory of Relativity. Not maintaining the invariance of the speed of light is tantamount to violating causality, allowing effects to precede their cause. Thus, relativity theory in physics can be seen as an essential aspect of maintaining the fundamental integrity of our universe. The profound relativity implied in maya mechanism of Advaita Vedanta would embrace modern relativity theories, but go much further and deeper.
Here is not the place to attempt a treatise on Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Our intention is merely to indicate how the philosophy moved from the Vedic literalism of Brahman to a non-literal way of thinking. Instead of talking literally, the philosophy reaches for a lower degree of qualification. This can be achieved by changing the attention from the privileged and mythically supreme Brahman to a radically different entity. The supreme entity of ancient times morphs into any entity whatsoever which plays the role of an entity in its own right. It is this being-cum-entity that takes centre stage. The whole Cosmos gyrates around it. The centre of the Cosmos is any entity whatsoever. Here we start to see the maya mechanism coming into play. If any determined entity, any determined being, were to enforce itself as being more important than any other then duality would be the outcome. A duality always exists where there is a ruler and the ruled. It is only in the case of the ontological democracy ofany entity whatsoever as the centre of the cosmos that such dualities can be avoided.
It is thus that anybody can declare that they are the centre of the universe. It is in this kind of way that Advaita Vedanta philosophy can be viewed as a counter Copernican revolution, albeit an ironic one.
Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial