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Relativism, Self-Referentialilty and Beyond Mind

Relativism, Self-Referentialilty and Beyond Mind
by Kundan

Paper presented at the International Conference on Mind and Consciousness: Various Approaches 2002,
held at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur on January 9-11, 2002


For the past many centuries in the West, the pursuit of knowledge has been mainly guided by the realist contention that there exists a world separate from the observer, and that by using the office of reason humankind will be able to find universal, rational, objective and value-free laws of Nature and human existence. This paper narrates the problem associated with objectivity by drawing largely from the findings of quantum physics, and from Kuhn’s analysis of the history of science, with the result that one finds that the nature of reality is relative with respect to individuals, time, and paradigms. This conclusion paradoxically suggests an absolute truth. Similarly, the meta-analysis of Kuhn’s theses about paradigm shows that his contention is self-referential, for it bites itself or swallows itself giving birth to a paradoxical situation where opposite categories like relative and absolute, true and false, right and wrong co-exist. The plan of this paper, using the arguments of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, is to show how the resolution of this paradox can lead to liberation or prajna. Using the insights of Sri Aurobindo – one of the greatest Indian mystics – the final section deals with the yogic methodology for solving the mysteries of mind and consciousness.

Challenges to objectivity

The birth of science was buttressed by a philosophy that has been called naïve Realism, which contends that there is an objective reality independent of the observer. In other words, objectivity was the cornerstone of the Enlightenment or the Modern era where it was presumed that science following a definite methodology would be able to solve all the mysteries of the world. The unarticulated assumption was that there is a world that existed separate from the individual and it can be understood by wresting out its secrets by a rational, unbiased and value-free observer. Consequently, the philosophy of realism created dualism such as subject and object and sharp divisions like objective reality and subjective feelings. This philosophy was the bedrock of scientific investigation until quantum physics began to complicate the matter.

In the study of high-energy particles, it has been found that particles cannot be understood as isolated entities but only in the context of their preparation and measurement. This means that the Aristotelian or the Newtonian idea of fundamental basic building blocks does not hold water anymore. Further, the classical distinction between subject and object – which was a natural outcome of the philosophy of Realism – has become vague as an observer has been found to be an integral part of the experiment. How an experimenter has set up an experiment and the measurement that he or she has decided to make determine the result of an experiment to a large extent. Thus, Capra (1992) observes:

The human observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational process, and the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of objective description of nature is no longer valid. (p. 78)

With the advent of the Relativity theory of Einstein, space and time, which appear to us as absolutes in our everyday experience, have been rendered relative with respect to the observer. The claim of the realists that objects like tables, chairs, bags, stones, statues, etc. have absolute existence also does not hold true in the light of the theory of relativity, for it has been shown that the length of an object – consequently its shape too – is dependent on its motion with respect to the observer. The length of a rod shortens as its motion increases with respect to the observer. Modern physics has also exploded the myth of an absolute linearity of time. Time in the theory of relativity has a meaning only with respect to a frame of reference, for as the velocity relative to the observer increases, time intervals increase. This means that the clock of the frame of reference of the observer slows down. In other words, time for two individuals moving at different velocities presents a different meaning.

The subject-object dichotomy has been critiqued from various perspectives, which has further problematized the existence of an unbiased, rational, value-free and objective subject. Language itself has been found to compound the problem of non-interactive subject and object. This happens because language does not only describe events, but also creates a cosmology, a worldview that influences the thought, behavior and perception of mankind. When a child begins to learn a language, the worldview of her ancestors is passed onto her. The pedagogic procedures used “both shape the ‘appearance’, or ‘phenomenon’, and establish a firm connection with words, so that finally the phenomena seem to speak for themselves without outside help or extraneous knowledge” (Feyerabend, 1993, p. 57). The human mind begins to take many facts of life as givens, and the entire process may be totally unconscious. Her worldview begins to create what she may observe. Also, in order to be unprejudiced, one will have to abandon language itself, which will remove all ability to perceive and to think, as a consequence of which the practice of science will stop before it begins. Writes Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of expression of that society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group….We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. [Cited in Whorf, 1962, p.134]

The history of Science: Objectivity demystified

The publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn has posed the most serious challenge to the idea of objectivity that science claims to achieve. Apart from stating that science is chiefly a paradigm-based activity, he has made it explicit and clear that science, like any other human activity, is a social activity which affects and gets affected by the milieu in which it is embedded and guided by sociological, economic, historical and political forces.

Kuhn (1970) points out that scientific practice is shaped by deep assumptions of the worldview of which the scientist may be unaware. For meaningful research to take place, the scientific community must agree upon the goals, the methodologies, and the valid subject matter in the context of research. The agreement on all these issues would constitute a framework or a paradigm within which the investigation of nature can take place. The paradigm has two components – disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars. The disciplinary matrix consists of a certain fundamental set of assumptions that are often unstated and not subject to empirical test. These assumptions form the basis for testing specific hypotheses. For example, reductionism states that the world can be understood by breaking it into smaller units until we arrive at a set of fundamental units. This is an assumption that is not going to be subjected to any kind of an empirical test, and thus constitutes a portion of disciplinary matrix of scientists who adhere to this belief. Before scientific research begins, the community of scientists reach a consensus as to what are the essential components of the universe, what are the valid questions of research, what is ‘scientific’ and what is not, etc. In other words scientists know a priori what the universe is like. As an example, while analyzing how Descartes influenced what was admissible in the scientific canon and what was not, Kuhn (1970) writes:

[A]fter the appearance of Descartes’s immensely influential scientific writings, most physical scientists assumed that the universe was composed of microscopic corpuscles and that all natural phenomena could be explained in terms of corpuscular shape, size, motion, and interaction. That nest of commitments proved to be both metaphysical and methodological. As metaphysical, it told scientists what sort of entities the universe did and did not contain: there was only shaped matter in motion. As methodological, it told them what ultimate laws and fundamental explanations must be like: laws must specify corpuscular motion and interaction, and explanation must reduce any given natural phenomenon to corpuscular action under these laws. More important still, the corpuscular conception of the universe told scientists what many of their research problems should be. (p. 41)

And again,

Paradigm functions by telling the scientist about the entities that nature does or does not contain and about the ways in which those entities behave. That information provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science’s continuing development. Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of research activity….In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. (p. 109, my Italics)

The other component of a paradigm is shared exemplars – the models for investigating new problems which include the methodology for pursuing the research. The disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars, by constituting the paradigm, unconsciously train a researcher to approach a problem in a specific way which gradually becomes his or her natural way. Through the lectures, textbooks and laboratory exercises, the members of a scientific community learn to practice their trade. The pedagogy used orients the mind to perceive the universe as composed of certain entities and laws, the existence of which cannot be doubted under any circumstances. No one doubts the existence of electrons today just as the existence of ether was not doubted a couple of centuries ago. In this vein, Leahey (1991) writes:

Neither source of data is comprehensible without training, yet once the scientist learns to interpret them, he or she will see them in those ways and no others. Thus training can act as a set of blinders, keeping the scientist from seeing in new ways. All observation and perception – whether scientific or not – is a matter of interpretation as numerous psychological examples have shown. (p. 14)

Weber (1946) similarly contests the idea that science can ever be free from suppositions, for it presupposes that the rules of method and logic are valid – a notion which cannot be tested by scientific means. Further, facts are meaningless and neutral in themselves; they become facts when interpreted against a theory comprising a priori categories. For example, the measurements made with the Atwood machine would have meant nothing in the absence of Newton’s Principia. Varied meanings can be ascribed to the same data. What once was a Leyden jar became a condenser, as there were changes in the electrical paradigms. Elucidating how the same entity can be interpreted in different ways under the influence of different paradigms or theories, Kuhn (1970) writes:

An investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both men were talking about the same particle but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice. (pp. 50-1)

In short, Kuhn has shown that science is not as rational and objective as it had been supposed. Indeed, scientific rationality is a matter of consensus. It involves unexamined biases and social interests like fame, fortune, love, loyalty and power of the investigator. A choice of one paradigm over another may be induced by inner psychological causes or other sociological ones that cannot be defended by appealing to the office of reason. More often than not, scientists following the same norms of disinterestedness, objectivity and rationality arrive at different conclusions. The history of science reveals that there are many competing theories before one paradigm becomes dominant and all of them have arisen from experimentation and observation. Comments Kuhn (1970):

[E]arly developmental stages of most sciences have been characterized by continual competition between a number of distinct views of nature, each partially derived from, and all roughly compatible with, the dictates of scientific observation and method. What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of method – they were all “scientific” – but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it. Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time. (p. 4)

The history of science also demonstrates that scientific knowledge is temporally relative; what was considered scientific once, has been rejected as superstition later. By the same token, what today constitutes scientific knowledge, which has been extracted from nature by subjecting it to repeated investigation, may turn out to be error tomorrow under the influence of a different paradigm. Kuhn (1970) states:

[H]istorians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogestic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones that we hold today. (p. 2)

A committed believer in science would say that the above stated phenomenon has taken place because science is cumulative and scientists have refined their theories in an effort to come closer to a truer and more accurate interpretation and description of nature. Kuhn disagrees and contends that instead of science being cumulative, it is revolutionary. A change in the paradigm changes the worldview of the scientist; or in other words the world comes to be viewed differently by the scientist. It involves a “reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications”(Kuhn, 1970. p. 85).

Kuhn holds that it is difficult to demonstrate the superiority of one paradigm over another purely on ‘logical’ argument. The primary reason is that the proponents of the rival paradigms subscribe to a different set of standards, metaphysical assumptions and methods. The rival paradigms are so incommensurable that no appeal to ‘rationality’ can settle the issue as the practitioners live in different worlds. Feyerabend (1976) writes:

Transition to criteria not involving content thus turns theory choice from a rational and “objective” and rather one dimensional routine into a complex discussion involving conflicting preference and propaganda will play a major role in it, as it does in all cases involving preferences. [Cited in Chalmers, 1982, p.138].

The contention of the realists that the true basis of scientific knowledge should proceed from an unbiased and unprejudiced mind, is further rendered absurd by the practice of the scientists to consider only such data which is relevant to his or her research. Since the idea of relevant and irrelevant is always present during the course of investigation, the possibility of an unbiased and unprejudiced observer takes a back seat. The investigator or scientist cannot but be an integral part of the research work and his or her subjectivity is bound to play an instrumental role in the outcome of the research. Thus, it can be safely said that the data that is generated by the scientist is not objective but collected within the larger framework of theory. It does not have an independent existence; rather it is constructed within the confines and boundaries of a theory. In other words, data is theory-laden and objectivity is the last thing that scientists should claim.

Relativity and the paradox of self-referentiality

The aforementioned arguments not only undermine the possibility of an objective truth but also demonstrate that the relationship between the subject and object is very vague, and it is difficult to differentiate them into two distinct entities.

It can also be deduced from the previous pages that all forms of scientific knowledge are relative with respect to individuals, time, and paradigms. Incidentally, this is a statement suggesting an absolute truth, which culminates in a paradoxical and a peculiar situation as it points to the co-existence of absolute and relative.

A meta-analysis of Kuhn’s arguments culminates in a situation that is not different. One of the chief themes of his theses is that paradigms guide research in terms of observation and interpretation of data. If his premise is true – he has, of course supported it with a lot of evidence – then, by extension it can be said that he has culled out data from the body of the history of science to support his theory that paradigms guide research. In other words, the data was collected with the theory – paradigm guides research – already in his mind. As soon as we recognize this, Kuhn’s arguments turn on themselves, thus assuming circularity. A paradoxical situation emerges again: Kuhn’s arguments are true and false at the same time. True because there is evidence to support his claim and false because he contradicts himself by inviting his arguments on himself (alternatively, his arguments have been designated as self-referential by his critics, and have been termed as self-refuting).

Secondly, Kuhn has cited evidence to show that facts and data have no meaning in themselves; they acquire meaning when interpreted against a theory or framework. There is an implicit circularity and paradox here too. By force of Kuhn’s arguments, it can be argued that the evidence that he has shown to demonstrate the truth of his arguments is meaningful only against his contention that evidence has no meaning in the absence of a framework. Evidence lends support to his theory whereas the similar kind of contradiction mentioned above, and the fact of being oblivious to his own subjectivity while attributing the crucial role of the scientist’s subjectivity in guiding research, renders Kuhn’s theory problematic. If the evidences of the other scientists are not sacrosanct, it can as well be said that Kuhn’s are not either.

Does this mean that these paradoxes are the final truth about our existence? Does this mean that they cannot be resolved? Does it mean that we have reached the final summit of our knowledge pursuit? The answer is a resounding no when we begin to explore the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. The philosophy of this school is called Sunyavada or Sunyata; in the West it has been named the doctrine of emptiness or openness.

Sunyata and the resolution of the paradoxes

The simultaneous existence of right and wrong, true and false, and relative and absolute that produces a paradox for Western philosophers poses no problem for the Madhyamika philosophers. In this section, we will examine how these paradoxes can be resolved paving the way for enlightenment or intuitive knowing. The philosophy also addresses the aforementioned issue of Self-Referentiality (which has been used by the critics to refute Kuhn) since a similar kind of charge had been leveled against it, as its opponents found that the discourse after deconstructing all epistemological and ontological presuppositions devours itself without leaving any trace. As we will see, the criticism does not bother the Madhyamika philosophers as they regard the issue of Self-Referentiality as a very valuable tool for the purpose of liberation. This will be commented upon later in this paper in some detail.

Nagarjuna, a second century Madhyamika philosopher, stated that concepts, events and entities do not exist in isolation but exist in relation to one another. He further contends that concepts, events and entities that he calls swabhava lack any intrinsic existence, and any attempt to reduce them to having an independent status will lead to absurdity. According to McCagney (1997), Nagarjuna defines swabhava as “nirapreksha paratra (independent of others), ahetu pratyaya (without cause or conditions), nitya (permanent or unchanging), aparijnana (unknowable), and akrirayate (unmade)” (p. 61). Nothing exists in-itself and of-itself, and no concept has any meaning independent of a relation. This is the principle of pratitya samutpada or dependent origination, and the main philosophy under which this is discussed is called sunyavada or sunyata or the doctrine of emptiness. There is no good without evil, no black without white, no valleys without mountains, and no friends without enemies. Darkness is born out of light and day is born out of night. True contains false and right encompasses wrong. Nagarjuna writes:

How, indeed, will disappearance exist at all without origination?
[How could there be] death without birth? There is no disappearance without [prior] origination.

It does not obtain that origination and disappearance are the same thing.
It does not obtain that origination and disappearance are different. [Cited in McCagney, 1997, p. 59]

McCagney (1997) citing from the Nagarjuna’s work Shunyasaptatikarika writes:

Without one [eka] there are not many [aneka]. Without many [aneka] one [eka] is not possible.

The father is not the son, the son is not the father. Neither exists without being correlative….(p. 60)

Employing the principle of pratitya samutpada or dependent origination and his dialectical skills, he refutes the contention of the realists that a thing exists in-itself or of-itself. The subject does not exist independent of the object; neither does the cause exist without the effect. These dichotomous pairs – like all that we use in everyday life – have no meaning beyond their relationship with one another.

Thus, the rigid dichotomy between the subject and the object crumbles down, for the Madhyamaka critique shows that the act of knowing is a product of the interaction between the observer/knower and the observed/known. Any dichotomized way of thinking results in avidya, loosely translated as spiritual ignorance, which motivates the mind to grasp thoughts as things to be grasped by the individual ego. The solution to the enigma of our existence or the knowledge of the ultimate is gained by the transcendence of all the reified and rigid thoughts through a way of ‘seeing’ and ‘being’ called prajna. The search for knowledge is grounded in our language, presuppositions and all those concepts and entities that we hold on to as givens in our everyday life. We attach transcendental and eternal value to these givens, which Madyamaka deconstructs by placing them in a sociolinguistic and historical context, thus paving the way for a spiritual seeker to transcend the rationalistic tendency to make sense of the truth through any epistemological or ontological suppositions. Huntington (1989) explains this most beautifully:

According to the Madhyamika, a…convoluted and subtle relationship holds between any two dichotomies of conceptual thought, whether expressed in ontological, epistemological, ethical or any other terms: Cause/effect, subject/object, substrate/predicate, absolute/relative, truth/error, good/evil, and all other dualistic concepts find their meaning in the context of their elusive relationship with each other and with an interrelated network of other such concepts. The structure that they give to all experience – a structure that seems “to emerge from the things themselves” – is also dependent on an illusion similar to the Necker cube where each image finds its meaning and existence only in the context of its relationship to partners that must always remain out of sight. The critical difference is only that the context of everyday life in which these other relationship are embedded is infinitely more complex, for it embodies an indeterminate number of historical and circumstantial factors shared by the sociolinguistic community in which this vocabulary is used and thought and perception take place. (p. 121)

Does this mean that the doctrine of sunyavada is the absolute truth? The Madyamika philosophers would have answered that this question itself was redundant for them, for to answer in affirmative or negative would be to play the game that they were trying to deconstruct. They did not take any position with regards to any epistemological or ontological issues, after having deconstructed all the claims of their opponents. It had been pointed out by the opponents of Sunyavada that the philosophy was incapable of defeating the claims of other philosophies, as it invited the application of its own arguments on itself (a critique of Self-Referentiality not dissimilar from what Kuhn and some deconstructivist and relativist philosophers are facing today). Chandrakirti, a notable seventh century A.D. Madhyamika philosopher, who is said to have consolidated the prasangika branch of Mahayana Buddhism, while responding to one such accusation states:

The problem of connection between argument and counterargument is only a problem for those who presuppose some form of absolute, as you do, and are therefore compelled to meet your claims with appropriate counterclaims. For us, it is a pseudoproblem, because we do not hold such presuppositions. Our words are like the reflection of a face in the mirror – there is no real connection between the reflected image and the face, but the image nevertheless serves a specific purpose for the person using the mirror. Similarly, our words bear no intrinsic connection with your epistemological and ontological problems and the language used to express these problems, but nevertheless these words of ours can serve to realize a specific purpose: They can be understood to express something that is not at all susceptible to expression in the language of “objective facts.” [Cited in Huntington, 1989, p. 54]

Similarly, Nagarjuna stated that he had no proposition (pratijna), and hence he had no fallacy. In addition, he warned against the dangers of making sunyavada an absolute truth by stating that whoever tried to make this treatment a drishti or a philosophical point of view was indeed lost. Sunyavada, according to Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, had a purpose, and that was to show the limitation of logic and the discursive mind for the attainment of prajna, and for a way of living totally devoid of antipathy, clinging and delusion (when I say the attainment of prajna, I do not mean to imply that there is a reality ‘out there’ that needs to be discovered). Use of logic for any purpose other than to undercut logic can become a dangerous snare, was the warning of Chandrakirti. Clinging to emptiness would be like the water catching fire that was used to dowse fire. The purpose of sunyavada is to end fear and suffering for all sentient beings, and to end clinging to every concept of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ including the doctrine of emptiness. When contested by fellow Buddhists that the doctrine of emptiness rejected the four noble truths and the three jewels that Buddha taught, Chandrakirti and Nagarjuna responded by saying that their opponents misunderstood the doctrine because they misunderstood the purpose. Writes Huntington (1989):

Its purpose, as stated by Candrakirti, is to eradicate the inner tendency of conceptual thought to construct reified notions of being (bhava) or non-being (abhava). Such reified notions generate the philosophical positions referred to as absolutism and nihilism. Even more crucial, though, from the Buddhist perspective, is Candrakirti’s point that both of these theoretical positions are representative of exactly the sort of conceptual diffusion (prapanca) that lies at the root of clinging and antipathy and therefore all forms of fear and suffering, This idea of purpose or application is the pivot on which Candrakirti’s philosophy and soteriology turn. (p. 30)

Does this mean that the philosophy had only soteriological aims, and had no empirical basis? The answer is not simple, for a Madhyamaka philosopher will not give a simple yes or no answer. Indeed, Nagarjuna said: “Everything is real, not real, both real and not real, and neither real nor not real: This is the teaching of the Buddha.” (Huntington, 1989). Since academic writing is still embedded in the dualistic exercise of proving and disproving things, may it suffice to say that Buddha had the experiential insight of pratitya samutpada just before his release from samsara (McCagney, 1997). At the same time, the Buddha while explaining samyak jnana, mistranslated as the right view, said to Katyayana:

Katyayana, everyday experience relies on the duality of “it is” and “it is not.” But for one who relies on the Dharma and on wisdom, and thereby directly perceives how the things of the world arise and pass away, for him, there is no “it is” and no “it is not.” “Everything exists” is simply one extreme, Katyayana, and “nothing exists” is the other extreme. The Tathagata relies on neither of these two extremes, Katyayana; he teaches the Dharma as a Middle Way. [Cited in Huntington, 1989, p. 37]

Not only Kuhn but also thinkers like Rorty, Derrida, Foucault and Gadamer (the paucity of space precludes me from going into the details of their philosophy) have thrown serious epistemological and ontological challenges that are obliterating the rigid dichotomy between subject and object. We have had various responses to their critique – some have qualified them as nihilist, some self-refuting etc. But as we have seen, the matter is more serious than merely taking an either/or stance about such issues. Madhyamaka philosophy not only provides us with a radical way of perceiving the situation, but also bails us out of an impasse generated by the crumbling down of the subject/object and various other dichotomies. Though at a very slow pace, it appears to me that as a civilization we are moving towards the realization of the ‘truth’ of the ‘highest’ meaning – parmartha satya – or the advayajnanafrom which will result the prajna. It is the claim of the Indian mystics that prajna, translated as wisdom, will give us an understanding of the workings of mind and consciousness, if it can be safely assumed that the problem of mind and consciousness is intricately entwined with the questions of nature of reality and Truth.

Beyond Mind: The appropriate methodology of mind and consciousness research

As it has been pointed out before, the objective of Madhyamika philosophers was to show the limitation of logic and discursive mind as tools for penetrating into the ultimate secrets of our existence. Mystics consider mind – with reason, logic and intellect as its instruments – an inferior and inadequate instrument for knowing the mysteries that surround our existence. This is a consistent thought in almost all spiritual traditions. According to Sri Aurobindo – one of the greatest mystics of the present time – mind and its instruments cannot perceive the Reality as a whole as its very nature is to classify, discriminate, categorize, divide, compare and measure. It tries to understand things through categories, concepts and formulas. In the intellectual history of mankind, there have been scores of such formulas and theories, but nothing definitive can be said about the fundamentals of our existence, despite the fact that most theories have almost equal intellectual appeal, and have evidence to support their claim even if they contradict each other. Sri Aurobindo (1958) puts it most succinctly:

[I]ntellect is incapable of knowing the supreme Truth; it can only range about seeking for Truth, and catching fragmentary representations of it, not the thing itself, and trying to piece them together. Mind cannot arrive at Truth; it can only make some constructed figure that tries to represent it or a combination of figures…There have been hundreds of these systems and formulas and there can be hundreds more, but none can be definitive. Each may have its value for the mind, and different systems with their contrary conclusions can have an equal appeal to intelligences of equal power and competence. All this labour of speculation has its utility in training the human mind and helping to keep before it the idea of Something beyond and Ultimate towards which it must turn. But the intellectual Reason can only point vaguely or feel gropingly towards it or try to indicate partial and even conflicting aspects of its manifestation here; it cannot enter into and know it. As long as we remain in the domain of the intellect only, an impartial pondering over all that has been thought and sought after, a constant throwing up of ideas, of all the possible ideas, and the formation of this or that philosophical belief, opinion or conclusion is all that can be done…If the intellect is our highest possible instrument and there is no other means of arriving at supraphysical Truth, then a wise and large Agnosticism must be our ultimate attitude. Things in the manifestation may be known to some degree, but the Supreme and all that is beyond the Mind must remain forever unknowable. (pp.169-70)

Reason, which Western philosophy has boasted as the panacea of ills and as a solver of all mysteries has failed to deliver, for there is no one Reason. The reason of individuals varies according to their belief, upbringing, attitude, culture, language and perspective. That reason which has the power and money to back its claim comes to be defined as the right reason. Recognizing the relativity of reason, Sri Aurobindo (1958) states:

You believe according to your faith, which is quite natural, he believes according to his opinion, which is natural also, but no better so far as the likelihood of getting at the true truth of things is in question. His opinion is according to his reason… How is reasoning to show which is right? The opposing parties can argue till they are blue in their face – they won’t be anywhere nearer a decision… But who can look at the world as it is and say that the trend of things is always (or ever) according to the right reason – whatever this thing called the right reason may be? As a matter of fact there is no universal infallible reason which can decide and be the umpire between conflicting opinions; there is only my reason, your reason, X’s reason, Y’s reason multiplied up to a discordant innumerable. Each reasons according to his view of things, his opinion, that is his mental constitution and mental preference. (p. 178)

As it has been stated before, Kuhn’s critique has totally destroyed the notion that any kind of objectivity can be expected out of science with regards to fundamental truths. The basic reason this has happened is because the domain of scientific research has mainly been intellectual. To elucidate this point more clearly, let us take a journey back into the first few pages of this paper where Kuhn’s ideas are discussed. As we previously noted, the education of scientists in a paradigm through disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars orients them to approach the problems in a similar way, so that they do not work at cross-purposes. It gives them a framework to proceed with their puzzle-solving activity, and interpret their data. A change in paradigm results in viewing the same data in a different way; the world begins to appear to a scientist differently than before. As has been pointed out by Kuhn, the history of science reveals that there are many competing theories before one paradigm becomes dominant, and many different explanations are possible from the same set of data. The fact that various meanings can be ascribed to the same data is because of the difference in constitution of the minds that approach it. Sri Aurobindo (1958), who had anticipated Kuhn in his main thesis, explains that this happens because of the fundamental nature of the mind.

Objective external physical things are seen very much in the same way by human beings because of the construction of the mind and senses; with another construction of mind and senses quite another account of the physical world would be given – Science itself has made that very clear. (p. 205)

Thus, we see that any enterprise for mind and consciousness research that is embedded in a subject-object dichotomy is doomed for failure. The mind – with reason, intellect and logic as its servants – too cannot know the secrets of ultimate reality. This brings us to the discussion of the appropriate methodology for the inquiry into mind and consciousness, and the ultimate Truth of our existence. It is through the transcendence of mind, logic, intellect and reason that the mystery of mind and consciousness can be solved. Mind can only take us so far as to show us its limitation, as the previous few pages may have shown. It can show us how ignorant we essentially are with regards to the basic enigma of our existence: Where do we come from and where do we go? Using mind in order to solve the problem of mind and consciousness is like trying to look at one’s own face without a mirror. The mystics claim that the deeper truths of our existence unravel themselves on a silent mind, compared metaphorically to an ocean that is absolutely calm. In other words, stillness of the mind is the necessary condition for accessing knowledge that lies beyond the domain of intellect. It is this region that holds the key to the secrets of mind and consciousness. Sri Aurobindo (1958) states that the “pure stillness of mind is always the required condition, the desideratum, but to bring it about there are more ways than one” (p.193). A complete silence of the mind and a change of ordinary human consciousness hold the promise of accessing knowledge of the fields not available to the physical eye. Writes Sri Aurobindo (1958):

The mind can think and doubt and question and accept and withdraw its acceptance, make formations and unmake them, pass decisions and revoke them, judging always on the surface and by surface indications and therefore never coming to any deep and firm experience of Truth, but by itself it can do no more. There are only three ways by which it can make itself a channel or instrument of Truth. Either it must fall silent in the Self and give room for a wider and greater consciousness; or it must make itself passive to an inner Light and allow that Light to use it as a means of expression; or else, it must itself change from the questioning intellectual superficial mind it now is to an intuitive intelligence, a mind of vision fit for the direct perception of the divine Truth. (p. 174)

A change of ordinary human consciousness becomes a necessary condition for mind and consciousness research. It is not by looking outside of us that we can find answers to the enigmas that shroud us, but by looking within. In this research the researcher and the researched become one; the subject becomes the object and vice versa, leading to the transcendence of the strict dichotomy of subject-object that Western science has practiced so far. Yoga, which actually means a union with the Divine or with the essential ground of all beings – whichever way one may want to see it according to one’s preference – is the key through which a change of human consciousness – and hence a transcendence of mind – is possible. Therefore, it is the appropriate methodology of mind and consciousness research. The Indian mystics have practiced this art for centuries together, and have left behind a rich source of literature for all kinds of aspirants who want to take this path. The mystics have always stated that there is no one right way to take; that is the reason why there is a plethora of paths leading to the oneness that underlies this Universe, based on the different constitutions and psychological make-up that humans have. If the West has perfected the art of researching the material universe, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Indian mystics have explored the area of consciousness inside out. However, when I talk about the distinctiveness of India in this field, I do not mean to suggest that such experiments have not been conducted anywhere else in the world – what I definitely mean is that they have been fewer in other parts of the world limiting the many possibilities of approaching the consciousness that humans have in their repertoire.

Concluding remarks

This brings me to comment on one of the aims of this conference, which is to explore whether Indian theoretical traditions can offer useful insights and solutions in the field of mind and consciousness research. If Kuhn’s critique of science, emanating from his analysis of its history, has pulled the rug from the feet of the scientists, Indian philosophy and mysticism should give them hope of finding the ultimate secrets of our existence as I have discussed in this paper. However, I would like to object to the use of the term theoretical for the Indian traditions. These traditions have not come out of speculation or out of superstition, as the dominant West would like us to believe, or has made us believe by systematically destroying the Indian education system under its colonial rule. The parallel for the word philosophy in Indian literature is darshana, which suggests that the thoughts in India do not owe their genesis to speculation and mental reasoning as has happened in the West, but to experience and seeing. The yogis, rishis and munis experienced the subtle realms through the various yogic practices, and then either recorded their experiences or had them passed on to the next generation through the oral tradition that was prevalent in Ancient India. Despite the fact that the tradition of yoga has suffered a setback, great yogis have consistently graced the earth of India. Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Raman Maharshi and Devraha Baba are recent examples. Yoga has a law of its own, and it deals with very concrete realities that can be seen with a non-ordinary vision, known as the third eye in the parlance of the Indian mystics; it is not a compendium of beliefs held by savages or barbaric people. Sri Aurobindo (1958) explains this most succinctly:

The mystic goes beyond into a region where this mental basis falls away, where these data are exceeded, where there is another law and canon of perception and knowledge. His entire business is to break through these borders into another consciousness which looks at things in a different way and though this new consciousness may include the data of the ordinary external intelligence it cannot be limited by them or bind itself to see from the intellectual standpoint or in accordance with its way of conceiving, reasoning, established interpretation of experience. (p.197)

And again,

[T]he experiences of yoga belong to an inner domain and go according to a law of their own, have their own method of perception, criteria and all the rest of it which are neither those of the domain of the physical senses nor of the domain of rational or scientific inquiry. (p. 206)

In the formative stages of the paper, I have quoted extensively from the writings of Kuhn as must be apparent. The reason was not only to show how the rationalistic scientific research has culminated in relativism, but also to expose the various assumptions that underline a scientific research that are not put to any kind of ‘scientific’ test. A scientific research before it proceeds defines what is scientific, what is not, and what is admissible in the canon of scientific beliefs and what is not. Science has its own body of beliefs and superstitions that have not been adequately researched, critically examined, or been put under the litmus test of ‘scientific’ inquiry. Rationality and objectivity are grand theories that have been constructed by science – which basically is the progeny of an imperialistic culture – whose main aim was to control, dominate and plunder. The science of yesteryear, without exploring the field of yoga on its own terms and the methodology that it uses, with one sweep put it in the dustbin of superstition, thereby obliterating the wisdom of a civilization which is one of the oldest in the history of civilizations – a civilization which had influenced practically the entire world with its ideas without using force. Sri Aurobindo (1958) states this most emphatically:

It is quite true that the word “superstition” has been habitually used as a convenient club to beat down any belief that does not agree with the ideas of the materialistic reason, that is to say, the physical mind dealing with the apparent law of physical process and seeing no further. It has also been used to dismiss ideas and beliefs not in agreement with one’s own idea of what is the rational norm of supraphysical truths as well. For many ages man cherished beliefs that implied a force behind which acted on principles unknown to the physical mind and beyond the witness of the outward reason and the senses. Science came in with a method of knowledge which extended the evidence of this outer field of consciousness, and thought that by this method all existence would become explicable. It swept away at once without examination all the ancient beliefs as so many “superstitions” – true, half true or false, all went into the dustbin in one impartial sweep, because they did not rely on the method of physical Science and lay outside its data or were or seemed incompatible with its standpoint. (pp. 246-7)

Thus, the Indian yogic tradition has a lot to offer to the world in matters of mind and consciousness research. At the same time, it is time for India to become more open to the traditional wisdom of her ancestors – the rishismunis, and the yogis – and research mind and consciousness the way it has been laid down by them – and there is no one way. There are many from which one can choose according to one’s constitution and preference. It is time for this ancient civilization to put a stop to getting evaluated by the ‘rationalistic’ propaganda of the West, and put more faith in the countless sages that it has witnessed, so that it is once again able to recreate the great civilization that it was in the past, and help the world to become a more peaceful and equitable place to live in.


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