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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chapter 3: Thinking about Philosophical and Metaphysical Questions

Let us see how we can think about philosophical and metaphysical questions. By definition, philosophy is the “study of the processes governing thought and conduct; theory or investigation of the principles and laws that regulate the universe and underlie all knowledge and reality”. Metaphysics is “the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain nature of being or reality (ontology) and of the origin and structure of the world (cosmology)” and is associated with epistemology, theory of knowledge. Please be warned that the term “Reality” is a loaded word with different meanings and interpretations.

Now, what are some of the Universal philosophical and metaphysical questions?
Who am I? Where did I come from?
What is life? What is this world? How did the world and life come about?
What is the origin of the universe?
What is the origin of life? Why life at all?
What is the relation between the individual and the Universe (cosmos)?
What is the relation between humans and other forms of life?
What is the relationship between human beings?
What is the purpose of human life?
What is the cause of human condition and suffering?
Who do good people also suffer? And bad people prosper?
What are the solutions to human problems – such as illness, suffering and death?
What is consciousness?

These questions have been asked by philosophers and mystics in every culture in every part of the world. Here are some examples from Sanskrit texts.
Koham? Katham idam? Jaatham katham? Yoga vasishta 23:3;34.
Kim idam syat jagat? Kim syat aham? Yoga vasishta 19:4;46.
Yenedam sarvam vijaanaathi tam kena vijaaniyat? Brahadaranyaka upanishad
Ha vaa imaa prajaah prajaayanta? Prasna upanishad
Kenayshitam pathathi preshitam manah
Kena praanah prathamah pretiyuktah
Kennayshitam vaachamimaam vadanti?.... Kena Upanishad


Here is one from the Old Testament
Book of Job Chapter 18. “Who is God? Who am I? What is my relationship to God? Why am I being punished? Why was I born? Will I live after death?”

Every system of philosophy tries to answer some or all of these questions. The languages are different. Meanings of words are different. (See Chapter 2; Part 4 on Words) Admissible evidences are different. (This will be dealt with in a future chapter) Philosophical inquiries developed in different parts of the world in isolation. Geographical and cultural settings in which these ideas developed were varied. And there are problems related to interconnections between philosophy, metaphysics and religions.

Each system emphasized one or more questions and in the process came up with different answers. Followers of each system were not aware of the other systems or answers, or failed to consider these as valid answers. The result is perpetual conflict between the peoples of the world and even between people of the same faith.

My purpose here is not to discuss the essential unity of all systems of metaphysics and of religions. (See books by Aldous Huxley on The Perennial Philosophy, by Bhagvan Das on the Essential Unity of All religions, Bhavan Publications). My purpose is to help you think about these questions. Therefore, here are some guidelines. When reading treatise from different philosophies, ask yourself the following questions.
What are the basic tenets of the system? (examples: karma, sin, free will)
Is it an ideology? Is it a dogma?
Is this a closed system?
What kinds of evidences are allowed in the system?
What are the dominant value judgments? (examples: sin, karma)

Let me define some of the words. Ideology is a “system of beliefs about human nature or of the universe that is held by some groups of people as giving rise to their way of life”. Dogmas are defined as “tenets resting on the authority of a school of thought, an ideology”.

All systems of thought are not closed systems. You have to find out whether the system you are reading about is a closed system. A “closed system” of thought “does not allow any evidence to counter against the theory – always finding some way of explaining away putative counter evidence”.

Dogmas may be one of 4 varieties: claimed by at least one school and not opposed by any; one peculiar to some and rejected by others; hypothetical, if accepted will lead to acceptance of other tenets and implicit dogmas, not declared explicitly.
When challenged, proponents of dogmas and ideologies respond by questioning the motive of the critic or by questioning the readiness and the commitment of the critic. Some will hide behind the statement that “future will vindicate” their dogma. Or may claim that the critic is not ready to “receive” the answer? (The Theories of Human Nature Stevenson L and Haberman DL Oxford University Press 1998; also read Nyaya Philosophy of Gautama)

Dogmas and ideologies are different from a theory which is based on a testable hypothesis. This is the basis of scientific method. For example, Creationism is a dogma, a pseudoscience, since its tenets cannot be tested. Evolution is a theory and is based on testable hypothesis.

One of the fundamentals of science is that when an exception is found to an existing hypothesis, a new level of understanding is reached and a new hypothesis is generated to account for the recently identified fact that contradicts the original hypothesis. This confuses the general public who thinks that science is unreliable because it keeps changing. It is easier to cling to old ideas, even if untrue, than keep changing.

An important point to consider is that all of the systems of thinking accept only certain modes of verification. ( see a future essay on Valid means of knowledge). Science and an ancient system of Indian philosophy called the caravaka accept only direct proof and verification of hypothesis. Conversely some systems, particularly religious systems, demand faith. Some even assert that faith is the ONLY accepted method. Science often asserts that only observable, quantifiable aspects of life are worth our attention.

How does one listen to an exponent of ideology or dogma? If you listen carefully to what a proponent of an ideology says to explain away uncomfortable facts, you will be able to know whether he is open to evidence or not.

1. Does he describe or explain what actually IS, or what SHOULD BE. The latter is an opinion and value judgment, often used in discussions on human nature. These are called judgmental statements. These folks who mistake what should be for what is, do not change their minds even when given facts.
2. If he makes statements that “define” the object or concept under discussion, such that it cannot be proven or disproven, (examples are Heaven and hell), he is impervious to facts. In philosophy, these are called analytical statements.
3. If he makes statements that can be proven or disproven by experiment or practical observation or experience, it is called an empirical statement. This is true of science.
4. If a statement does not fall under any of these categories, it is a metaphysical statement and often based on concepts and words susceptible to varying interpretations.

When dealing with philosophical and metaphysical statements, the following questions helped me make up my own mind.
What was the most original statement?
Who said it ? (not always important; not always possible to be sure the words can be definitively attributed to that person) Why and in what context did he say those words? What was the intended meaning?
Was this really said by that person, or did someone add or modify it subsequently?
If so, by whom? When? Why?
How is this statement being used at present? Who uses it most? For what purpose?
Is this statement still relevant in the current context?
Has the knowledge base changed in this area so that this is no longer valid?
Does this agree with observable facts in everyday life? If not, why do we still keep repeating it?

I look at our current practices and beliefs and compare with the original writings. If they do not agree with reason on deep thinking, are irrelevant in the current context, are wrong based on current verifiable knowledge, do not help us or anyone else, are harmful to even one single life and do not agree with what we can observe in nature there is no need to accept these statements. This is in no way to diminish the intellect and the work of our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand to get our current, clearer view of the universe.

In other words, throw out the old map when the territory has changed. This position is supported even by Adi Sankara. In his book on Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1964), Swami Atmananda quotes from Sankara’s commentaries on Bhagavat Gita and Brahma Sutra. One of them is a bold statement, made originally in Sanskrit, and reads as follows: “Certainly Sruti (veda) cannot be an authority as against observed facts. Even if hundreds of Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light, they cannot become an authority on this point”. Another statement says: “Sruti is merely informative. (Shruteh gnaapakathvath). The scriptures seek not to alter the nature of things but to supply information about things unknown”.

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