Rethinking the Metaphysical:
Western Science and the Advaitic Critique
by Mark Noble,
Student, University of Californai at Santa Barbara
To adhere, with any sense of conviction, to a doctrine of scientific materialism means, in the modern West, to accept a twofold set of metaphysical presuppositions that guides scientific inquiry as we know it: namely, the essential distinction between the thinking subject and objective reality, and the presence of an active telostoward which we are oriented. While the former of these fundamental Western presuppositions is perhaps more obviously manifest in secular modernity than the latter, I would argue that both have had a pervasive influence on the development of a modern scientific discourse as they were inherited from the West’s religious and philosophical traditions. Interestingly, the attention given to potentially correlative “sciences” of consciousness—i.e. the mind—in Buddhist contemplative traditions by scholars adjacent to modern science has introduced an entirely different conception of the metaphysical, which calls to account not only the methodologies employed by contemporary neuroscience, for example, but that entire metaphysical foundation on which it is grounded. The Vednta tradition, in particular, sustains a notion of the metaphysical that collapses both of these major Western presuppositions—refusing to acknowledge the separation of the scientist from her science and nullifying the notions of development or progress. The contrast in worldviews indicates a powerful critique. However, even if this Advaitic commentary does not completely usurp modern science, it must at least force the West to rethink “the metaphysical”—not merely in terms of that which the subject cannot reduce to object, but as the necessary ground on which its most basic presuppositions are founded.
Ironically, the modern Western phrasing of “the metaphysical” as whatever lies “beyond the scope of observation” (Topic 3) requires as its foundation a metaphysical position: the notion of thinking subject—an observer—that stands in natural opposition to observable reality. This fundamental duality proves ubiquitous in Western philosophy after Descartes. The solipsism of the infamous Cartesian aphorism—“cogito sum”—becomes the logical ground on which modernity ventures to posit subjectivity, and thus invites the sort of duality that the Advaitin thinker hopes to sublate. The irony is nowhere more pervasive than in modern science, whose secular development has eliminated any practical concern for meta-physics. Apparently ignorant of its own foundations, the initiative to understand and control reality as object emerges in the modern West as the product of the Cartesian metaphysical logic. Moreover, as with Descartes, the grounding of the scientific subject is a function of its own certainty about the object of its cognition—i.e. the scientist gauges truth via observation in relation to a category of objective certainty. Thus, from the self-grounding cogito ego in Descartes, modernity goes on to posit a deep faith in human rational capacities and foster grandiose utopian visions of progress and freedom via the widening gap between the now deified subject and a purely objective reality.
Such notions of progress—familiar to science in its relation to Western culture more broadly—stand upon the metaphysical architecture of Christian teleology. Traceable from Augustine through to Hegel, the presence of the telos in the West dominates religion and philosophy into the modern era. Though at times the Christian version of Platonism with which Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius inaugurate medieval Europe does bear some conceptual similarity to the Buddhist cosmology—especially with mystics such as Eckhart and Dionysius—the constant procession or movement of Christian metaphysics toward its end renders it distinctive. The teleology characteristic of Christian theology, soteriology, and, of course, eschatology is inherited by the modern West, and, consequently, is built into the dogmas that drive secular science. Despite the twentieth century, Westerners, with exceptions, adhere to a belief that scientific knowledge implies a kind of progress toward an absolute knowledge that will not only relieve objective reality of whatever metaphysical mysteries it once held but actually improve the lives of its constituents. The Cartesian implications are clear: the self-grounding subject is always on its way to a kind of absolute certainty—perhaps in much the same way the Neo-Platonic subject is on its way back to God. The persistence of the subject/object matrix and the activity of the Christian telos seem to go hand-in-hand, driving the scientific discourse of the West, and, consequently, its empirical investigations into the nature of consciousness.
In its most basic ontological framework, the Vednta philosophy dissolves the Cartesian subject/object duality and thus undermines the very mode of discourse that underlies the Western scientific worldview. Rather than calculating and quantifying the material world as object, the Advaitin pursues a “higher knowledge” which culminates in “the awareness of the identity of the knowing subject with reality itself” (Indich 7). Having posited a “transcendental ground of existence”—Brahman—the contemplative engages the possibility that “knowledge and reality, epistemology and metaphysics merge in non-duality” (Indich 7). Thus, the Advaitin ontology requires that its subject reject, or “sublate” the illusory world of materiality so as to grasp its own identity with the ground of being that is both existential and transcendental. For the Platonic metaphysician this “cancellation” of the phenomenal world might once have signaled a sort of ascension toward the divine; but for the modern scientist, the contemporary practitioner of Western metaphysics, the persistence of materiality is crucial. In fact, modern science emerges as that very sort of worldview the Advaitin characterizes as “ignorant” (Indich 9) because of its conflation of material phenomena with “reality.” Such confusion, for the Buddhist, is the product of a belligerent refusal to acknowledge the impermanence—or mere conventionality (Wallace 179)—of the Cartesian subject/object dichotomy—even as it anchors scientific materialism.
Furthermore, by contrast to the teleological paradigms that govern the West, the “transcendental ground” of which the Advaitin becomes passively “aware” is characteristically static. “Absolute consciousness” (Indich 117) does not signal a spiritual process, as with Christian Platonism, nor does it function as progress, in the mode of modern science. Rather, Brahman emerges as an unchanging permanence whose fusion with the subject represents a pure stasis, or “awareness.” Consciousness for the Advaitin is not a dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) process in which the subject is driven toward the eschaton, but rather a permanent network of being into which the mind is integrated. Where Western notions of absolute or concrete knowledge indicate development or discovery—that is, the whole canon of scientific knowledge is essentially mobile or progressive—the Advaitin’s realization of the unio mystico is not a consequent realization of a telos that governs Buddhist thought. Moreover, the type of “contemplative science” (Wallace 181) with which Buddhists engage the mind clearly resists the sort of progressivism that justifies Western science to itself.
Clearly, to posit, as a Western thinker, the possibility that reality is at once non-dual and a-teleological means to uproot the foundations of scientific discourse; it means, finally, to rethink the metaphysical as we have known it. The popular scientist’s conception of the metaphysical merely as that which remains irreducible to objectivity—or more basically, the “unobservable” or “incorporeal”—seems ultimately inadequate when one recognizes the profound metaphysical presuppositions upon which modern scientific materialism is founded. The materialist who might point to the receding territory in the realms of the metaphysical makes a salient point: modern science has indeed rendered less and less of its objective reality unobservable. But materialism fails to realize, of course, the metaphysical implications of such a statement—namely its dependence upon the maintenance of the subject as distinct from its object and the presupposition of a progressive goal via objective inquiry. The Buddhist critique of this Western “ignorance” regarding the metaphysical as puerile and sophomoric provides the West with an astute means of introspection—especially as it ventures into unknown, and seemingly un-quantifiable scientific territory.
The advent of neuroscience—and its subsequent frustrations—presents modernity with an opportunity for just this sort of critical cultural introspection. The modern study of the mind, of course, includes those normative doctrines of rationalism—which indicates not just the use of one’s rational faculties but also presumes a radical, often dogmatic faith in reason as such—and progressivism as it moves to objectify that fountainhead from which both reason and a sense of progress must have sprung. According to Vednta philosophy, this sort of “modified consciousness” (Indich 55) is riddled with inadequacy to the task at hand. In order to grasp the nature of consciousness adequately, states the Buddhist, the scientist must recognize the metaphysical ground in which she is rooted. If the metaphysical presuppositions at the foundation of Western thought prohibit this sort of recognition, as is the case with modern science, then perhaps the West must begin to rethink its metaphysics—to dissolve those prohibitive matrices of separation and teleological paradigms that render consciousness, and its ground, so elusive.
So perhaps we shall prepare for another upheaval of Christendom—and perhaps not. It seems to me entirely plausible that Western metaphysics is indeed malleable to the degree necessary for the reshaping modern thought into a worldview capable of comprehending consciousness. If the precepts of scientific materialism are as jejune as the Advaitic critique indicates, then this rethinking of the metaphysical is as germane and pressing an issue in the West as it ever has been. Without venturing too closely to a synthetic adumbration of the future in this regard, I would tend to believe that this philosophical collision of East and West signals the potential in modern scientific discourse for relief from the current dogmatism and a heightened awareness regarding those “physics” that stand “beside” or “beyond” objective reality and ground our every thought. Perhaps, however, this optimism is itself yet another Cartesian-based, teleological objectification of the issue—one incapable of finally recognizing the presuppositions on which it rests.
Indich, William. Consciousness in Advaita Vednta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.
Wallace, B. Allan. “A Contemplative View of the Mind.” Choosing Reality: A Contemplative
View of Metaphysics and the Mind. New York: Snow Lion, 1996.
Presupposition 1: subject/object via Descartes
Presupposition 2: teleology via Christianity/Hegel
Critique 1: sublation…identity of subject/object in Vednta
Critique 2: static quality of Brahman, etc.
“The metaphysical” 1: ???
“The metaphysical” 2: ???
Conclusion: upheaval? Perhaps not…but…
-perhaps the guiding precepts of modern science are not all that different than Advaitism… (i.e. there’s more Platonism in science than Wallace’s critique evinces, and more of a Platonic correlate in Buddhism that one might think)
-To adhere, with any conviction, to a doctrine of mechanistic materialism means, in the modern West, to accept a set of metaphysical presuppositions that objectify the material world such that “the universe we experience exists independently of our perceptions and ideas” (Wallace 181) and can be fully explicated, unveiled,
-the telos in modern science: progress toward absolute knowledge (like Hegel) of the objective world; so science depends upon the consistency of the subject/object matrix for its metaphysics…?
-the simple (Hegelian) conclusion: complete scientific knowledge of the objective world includes complete knowledge of oneself…; but does this undermine the centrality of the subject or indicate the illusory quality of the material world? Not really. Why not? Because of the developmental aspect, perhaps?—i.e. because the telos is always active, the West is always in process… Or perhaps the answer is more complex… and we must rethink our definition of the metaphysical so as to acknowledge its foundational influence upon Western thought.
-a theological connection: the purpose of life is to love God (vs. knowledge of Brahman); from Augustine to Hegel the subject/object matrix remains intact in this notion of loving God…and in Hegel we can most clearly see the notion of continuous development or process. So the dissolution of the opposition (still Hegel) via a realization…
-the contemplative mode eventually obliterates the subject/object distinction so as to become aware of “the identity of the knowing subject with reality itself” (Indich 4)
-By way of a fascinating contrast, the latent metaphysical presuppositions of the modern West become most clear when we compare modern scientific rationalism with the East…
-rationalism—as an “ism”—not only indicates the use of one’s rational faculties, but presumes a radical, of ten dogmatic faith in reason as such. The Advaitin bears no such faith; in fact, he considers the sublation of rationality a personal goal.
-Continuity in Hegel vs. discontinuity is Vednta; the Advaitin is not a dialectical thinker in pursuit of a systematic philosophy.
-the definition of the metaphysical from the prompt as that which is “incorporeal”…?