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Advaita for the 21st Century

Science and Nonduality Conference
San Rafael, October 2009

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A Short Guide to Western Philosophy, Part II

Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few
Bishop Berkeley

There are three schools of thought with regard to the mind/body problem � materialism, dualism and idealism. Material and dualism have already been investigated. Now we must turn our attention to idealism.

Essentially, idealism is the direct opposite of materialism, in that it is the doctrine that purports that only ideas, or thought, make up reality. Indeed, the greatest exponent of idealism, the eighteenth century Irish priest Bishop Berkeley, stated that all that can ever be known with any certainty is the mind and mental phenomena � there are no grounds for believing in anything else. Should there even exist a realm of independent material objects outside the human brain, how would we be able to conceptualise or indeed have any evidence for it without perceiving such information through the use of our very own minds?

Moreover, Berkeley also held that the individual mind does not subjectively determine its own experience of the world; the reason that different individuals continually perceive a similar world, and that a reliable order inheres in that world, is that the world and its order depend on a mind that transcends individual minds and is universal � namely, the mind of God.

Many non-religious thinkers often dispense with this religious component to Berlekey�s idealist theory; nevertheless, his basic premise � that ideas are dependent upon being perceived by minds for their very existence � has not, as yet, been satisfactorily refuted.

As the centuries passed, philosophy embraced new ways of thinking, ranging from political radicalism, liberalism, and scientific empiricism, forever exploring more and more diverse interpretations of the world, society and the nature of the self. So by the time we reach the twentieth century, philosophers had so exhausted every avenue of thinking that questions pertaining to the human mind had inevitably been deconstructed into meaningless abstraction. Thinkers became obsessed with the logic and structure of language, which attempt to define philosophical problems, rather than the very problems themselves. In other words, by stripping down various statements and propositions to their bare bones, the real meaning � they believed � could be revealed.

But like trying to look more closely at the darkness by turning on the light, the �true meaning� of anything became more and more elusive; they began to ask themselves was there in fact such a thing as �meaning� at all?

Indeed, even the belief in any transcendental consciousness or deity guiding humanity had been relinquished. God was dead and man had been abandoned, left to his own devices to struggle on his own. This was a time when the world had been shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb. Is it any wonder that people felt that the idea of a benevolent super being was completely absurd?

But there were a group of philosophers who took on board the search for meaning and the nature of conscious existence very seriously, very seriously indeed. No prizes for guessing their name � the existentialists, as they were so called. So what did they believe? Unlike all previous attempts to define reality and then the nature of the self observing it in a detached sort of way, existentialism takes its starting point from the opposite angle by saying that the self is inextricably engaged in the world right from the start. In other words, the self effectively comes first, then the world and the universe and the rest of reality beyond it, all defined and given meaning through an interpretation unique to �me�.

And thus, because mankind effectively defines his own reality, this means that he must take full responsibility for his choices and behaviour. As the great French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said, �Man is condemned to be free.� This may sound liberating at first but in fact, it can lead to a crisis. After all, if this world around me has no intrinsic meaning other than that which I give it, all manner of fears and anxieties, particularly with regard to death, can start creeping in. If there�s nothing to look forward to after I die, that my death is the end, finito, what can I hold onto to give my life any value or purpose?

And yet it was the existentialists who would turn this idea on its head, by arguing that the key to living a more fulfilled existence is by embracing life itself and living authentically in the present moment, in the here and now. Indeed, for an existentialist, existence precedes any idea of essence, of consciousness, rather than the other way around.

For many, however, the culmination of all Western thought is embodied in the philosophy of an early nineteenth century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, someone who lived long before the pursuit of philosophy had joined the avant garde. Most people find Schopenhauer somewhat depressing since he had rather a pessimistic view of the world. But if one looks deeply into his work, there can be found many profound truths buried therein. His masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, was written whilst he was still in twenties. Sadly no one took much interest and it wasn�t until the very end of his life when in his late sixties that it received the recognition that it deserved.

Essentially Schopenhauer, who was greatly influenced by Plato and Kant, believed that the world as we experience it is only an expression or representation of an underlying, unknowable reality, beyond space and time, which he labelled the Noumenon. Thus, the entire universe is one numinous consciousness, in which the phenomenal world is allowed to arise.

Moreover, permeating the world is �will�, an energy or desiring force � you could call it impersonal egoism � that surges through us, driving each and every one of us forward, almost unconsciously, to act and to strive and to beget children (Schopenhauer believed the greatest expression of the will is to be found in the genitals).

Often branded a pessimist, Schopenhauer didn�t like the empirical world � he saw that man�s lot was to suffer in this life and the more intensely he was gripped by his hopes and desires and cravings, propelled by an innate feeling of lack and deficiency, the more he was doomed to heartache. Unlike the modern view that �my happiness� is dependent on financial success and achievement, Schopenhauer believed that getting what we want is only a momentarily release from life�s unremitting treadmill and that the cycle of desire will reassert itself, sooner or later, causing further misery and pain.

Although Schopenhauer wasn�t an idealist in the sense that Berkeley was, he did believe that the world was subject-dependent; in other words, without the subject �I� to perceive the world, it had no ultimate meaning, whether it exists independently or not. In fact, he believed that the world is ultimately of no consequence and, therefore, postulated that the only way to be free of its torment is through the non-identification with the will; only then can man connect with the Noumenon directly and experience some kind of inner peace.

So where does Schopenhauer fit in with the materialists, dualists and idealists? Perhaps one could call him a monist or even a nondualist, because there is apparent duality � the phenomenon of mind and matter � and yet it is all unfolding in the Noumenon or the One.

Indeed, early in his life, Schopenhauer was introduced to translations of the Upanishads and other related Hindu and Buddhist texts, which effectively said all the things that Schopenhauerian philosophy would finally arrive at as well � namely, that the world as we know it is an illusion, maya, a realm of phenomena and separateness. And yet, permeating this illusory veil is the ultimate, undifferentiated reality � Brahman � from which everything was born and to which everything will return.

Moreover, Schopenhauer�s model of reality is arguably similar to David Bohm�s theory of Implicate and Explicate Order. Interestingly, when the great quantum physicists were doing their lectures tours of the Far East back in the early twentieth century, they too stumbled upon the teachings of Eastern philosophy � Buddhism, the Tao, and Zen.

Unfortunately, there is always a fly in the ointment � Schopenhauer was something of a misogynist. In many ways, it is rather disappointing because a large part of his philosophy focuses on the ethics of compassion; he believed that all individuals are united because they are founded in the Noumenon, the undivided consciousness, which binds all human beings together. But then again, he was forever troubled by a tempestuous relationship with his mother. No doubt blood is thicker than water, whether it be phenomenal or not.

To be continued...

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Paula Marvelly

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