Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Orgasmic Absolute: The Ambiguous Role of Bliss in the Vedanta

In my previous post I recounted how the philosophy of Absolute Idealism originated not in early 19th century Germany with Schelling and Hegel -- as is often thought -- but rather in ancient India from the 8th to 5th century BCE. There the polytheistic mythology of the Hindu religion, originally expressed in the Vedas, was gradually rationalized into a philosophical monotheism, culminating in the Upanishads where this monotheism took on the shape of an Idealistic Monism known as Vedanta (literally meaning "end / culmination of the Vedas"). In the Vedanta, reality as a whole is explained in terms of a self-causing Absolute, known as Brahman, the spiritual nature of which is announced through its identification with Atman, the Universal Self, which finds its highest empirical manifestation in the human self. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the self as the key to the nature of Brahman was partly the self’s epistemological significance, i.e. the fact that the self is presupposed in all acts of thought, experience and knowledge. As a result, Brahman was identified with the Universal Knower, the transindividual subject underlying all individual acts of cognition -- much like the transcendental subject in German Idealism.

Although Brahman, as the Universal Knower, does have much in common with Kant's transcendental subject, we should also recognize their substantial differences. Whereas the transcendental subject is purely epistemological in function (as the formal unity of the transcendental apperception that guarantees the synthetic unity of the empirical object), the Vedantic Brahman is much more: it is volitional and emotional right from the start. Brahman is not just the Universal Knower but also the Universal Willer and Enjoyer -- indeed, Brahman is Will and Joy as such. Brahman is
the self-willing and self-sustaining pure bliss underlying and driving everything that exists. Brahman is the bliss "from which these beings are born, that, by which, when born, they live, that into which, when departing they enter" (Taittiriya Upanishad : 553).1 Hence the standard Vedantic definition of Brahman as satcitananda -- a compounded Sanskrit term consisting of "sat" (being), "cit" (consciousness) and "ananda" (bliss). Satcitananda, then, designates Brahman as the integral unity of consciousness, being and bliss.

"As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife
knows nothing without or within, so the person when
in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing
without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)
This presents us with a unique and attractive feature of the Vedanta, especially when compared to other dominant forms of monotheism in the world, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the origin of creation, the Vedanta does not place a "jealous God", ruling over mankind with stern commandments, but rather a pure "pleasure principle": a self-creating, self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. "It is this delight that overflows into creation," as Radhakrishnan notes (1953: 70). Keeping in mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum “A dirty mind is a joy forever”, we can say that the Vedanta is all the more attractive given the clear sexual connotation to this pure bliss which is Brahman. True, in many religions the imagery of the sexual unification of lovers is used to describe the unio mystica, i.e. the mystical unification of man with God. But the Vedanta is unique because it uses this imagery to explain the nature of Brahman itself. Thus the Vedantic Brahman is the pinnacle of pleasure and is as such analogous to the sexual climax, the orgasm that concludes sexual unification (well, most of the times anyway… but now I am wandering off-topic). In this sense the Vedantic Brahman can be described as "the orgasmic Absolute". The Vedanta has strongly influenced Tantric Yoga in this regard.

At the same time, however, this orgasmic quality of Brahman is highly ambiguous, because in all other respects the Vedanta promotes ascetic renunciation of bodily pleasure, even to the point of extreme mortification (as in Shankara). So how we are to understand the cosmic orgasm which is Brahman? The answer, elaborated in the final section of this post, is that we should understand it primarily in intellectual terms, as the intellectual orgasm that results from reaching (through meditation) the knowledge of one’s unity with Brahman -- a knowledge that participates in Brahman’s own self-awareness. In line with the Absolute-Idealist approach to Leibniz's question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", the Vedanta explains Brahman's self-causation in terms of its self-awareness: Brahman exists because it is aware of itself – it’s pure self-awareness is its self-creation. The attainment of this absolute self-awareness, therefore, is at the same time the intellectual orgasm that produces reality as such. And the sage who attains this absolute self-awareness participates in this ontological orgasm.  

The volitional aspect of Brahman
As noted above, we should not make the mistake of seeing Brahman qua Atman in purely epistemological terms, as the Universal Knower. There is also a strongly volitional aspect to the Vedantic concept of Brahman. What impressed the Upanishadic sages in the human self -- like all Absolute Idealists the world over -- was its apparently free will, its capacity for spontaneous self-determination, to initiate a new course of action seemingly 'out of nothing': "I choose to do this though I could have done otherwise..." Such a capacity for free self-determination seemed precisely what was needed to make sense of Brahman as the self-causing cause of reality. The free will of the human individual was -- and perhaps still is -- the only model available for understanding the possibility of self-causation. Though imperfectly realized in human beings, as finite and empirically conditioned as we are, this capacity for free self-determination becomes absolute as we ascribe it to the Absolute itself. This was the revolutionary step taken by the Upanishadic sages: the cosmic expansion of the human self, the modeling of Brahman on the self-determining power of the self, the Atman. "Brahman, the first principle of the universe, is known through Atman, the inner self of man." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 77) Brahman's self-causation can then be conceptualized as analogous to human self-determination -- as self-determination freed from human limitations, thus as absolute self-determination. "Why is the universe what it is, rather than something else? Why is there this something, rather than another? This is traced to the divine will... The power of self-determination [...] belongs to God." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 63)

Brahman as Self-Willing Joy
We would, however, be unfaithful to the spirit of the Upanishads if we saw this free act of divine will -- which explains why there is something rather than nothing -- as an act exercised by a pre-existing subject, i.e. by God as He exists independently from the act. To conceive of the primordial will in this way would be to relapse in religious dogma, which is precisely what the Upanishads were trying to overcome. In traditional religion we simply presuppose the existence of God to explain the creation of the world ("because He willed it"). But then the question why there exists something rather than nothing is not yet answered; we still have to explain God's existence. Thus, in conformity with the concept of self-causation, we have to see the primordial act of the will as bringing itself into existence. This act, then, does not presuppose a prior subject: it is in a sense a will without a subject, a subjectless will. Or, if the notion of act without acting subject is illogical, we must say that this act of the will produces the subject performing the act. That is to say: insofar as it produces its own existence, the primordial act of the will is its own subject. In the same way, this act of the will must be said to be its own object, i.e. what it wills. For since there is nothing outside of it (given that it is the self-causing cause of all reality), there is nothing for it to will but itself. And it is precisely by thus willing itself that it brings itself into existence: it wills itself into existence -- a self-willing, self-creating will. There is thus in the primordial act of the will, which timelessly 'kick starts' reality, a strict identity between act, subject and object: will, willer and willed are one and the same.

Alex Grey, Big Bang
Brahman, as conceived in the Vedanta, is this self-willing, self-creating will. This explains the Vedantic conception of Brahman as supreme bliss ("ananda"). Brahman's will for itself immediately satisfies itself, since its self-willing is its self-causation. In other words: Brahman gives itself to itself merely by willing itself. Brahman is therefore a self-satisfying will. And as such Brahman is pure bliss, i.e. ananda, a self-enjoying, self-reinforcing joy. Thus the Vedantic philosopher Shankara lets Brahman say in an imaginary soliloquy: "I am both the enjoyer and that which is enjoyed... In myself is the ocean of joy, infinite, undivided." (Shankara 1975: 115) The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it paradoxically as follows: "That, verily, is his form in which his desire is fulfilled, in which the self is his desire, in which he is without desire, free from any sorrow" (262; italics mine). That is to say: Brahman satisfies its desire by being that desire -- by being the self-satisfying will -- and as such (as self-satisfied) it is also without desire.

The ladder of ananda
By being self-reinforcing, this joy -- which is Brahman -- is infinite. It is ultimate bliss, the greatest joy imaginable. The Upanishads occasionally express this maximality of ananda in terms of a 'ladder' of gradations of joy (see in particular the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266-7, and the
Taittiriya Upanishad: 550-1). At the lowest level we find common human joy, which for most men is thoroughly materialistic: "If one is healthy in body, wealthy, lord over others, lavishly provided with all human enjoyments, that is the highest bliss of men." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 266) Each higher step in the ladder then gives a form of joy that is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous one. Thus above human joy we find the "bliss of the gods by action, those who attain their divine status by (meritorious) action". In turn this bliss "multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of the bliss of the gods by birth". This bliss then forms one hundredth of the bliss of the gods who are not just born as gods but who are also "versed in the Vedas" and "not overcome by desire", and so on... Ultimately the ladder culminates in Brahman: "This is the highest bliss. This is the world of Brahman." (Idem: 267)

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder
It is not exactly clear whether the authors of the Upanishads intended such ladders to be taken literally or as mere pedagogical metaphors indicating the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss -- though the latter option seems to be the most likely. For the fact is that the ladders do not make much sense when taken literally (even if we bought into the Vedic pantheon, which they still presuppose). The ladders are, after all, just finite: they culminate in the highest bliss after a finite number of steps. The ladder in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad consists of seven steps; the ladder in the Taittiriya Upanishad consists of ten steps. But the highest bliss, i.e. Brahman itself, is supposed to be infinite. Clearly, infinite bliss cannot be reached in a finite number of steps starting from the finite quantity represented by common human bliss. If each next step is a "hundred times" stronger than the previous level, then the bliss of Brahman would according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad be a mere hundred to the power of seven times stronger than human bliss... which makes no sense at all. Thus the Upanishadic ladders of ananda are illogical under a literal interpretation. But the authors of the Upanishads usually display great logical acumen in most other matters; surely the logical deficiency of the ladders of ananda could not have escaped their notice. Thus it seems likely that the ladders were primarily intended as mere metaphors for conveying the infinite distance separating human bliss from divine bliss.2

Ascetism in the Vedanta
It should be noted, however, that such ladders do not just indicate the transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss. They also represent processes of purification and intellectualization: the forms of joy become progressively stronger as they become nobler, less corporeal and more intellectual. In a way, therefore, the steps of the ladder also indicate the stages which a student of the Vedanta must pass through if he is to attain highest wisdom: the spiritual unification with Brahman. This instructional character of the ladder comes out clearly in the
Taittiriya Upanishad, where the ladder ends with the sage finally attaining ultimate wisdom: "He who knows this [...] reaches the self which consists of mind, reaches he self which consists of understanding, reaches the self which consists of bliss." (551) Starting from the lowest level of joy (materialistic joy), the Vedantic student must gradually purify himself from his primitive urges, immerse himself in the teachings of the Vedas, and develop his intellectual powers.

The Upanishads frequently stress these ethical and intellectual requirements which a student must meet. For example, the Taittiriya Upanishad directly admonishes the student: "Speak the truth. Practice virtue. Let there be no neglect of your (daily) reading..." (537). These ethical and intellectual requirements, which the student of the Vedanta must meet, reflect the spiritual nature of ananda. In some Upanishads this spiritual purification required for the attainment of Brahman even takes on a strongly ascetic form, such that the aspiring sage must mortify all earthly desires: "When all desires that dwell within the human heart are cast away, then a mortal becomes immortal and even here he attaineth to Brahman. / When all the knots that fetter the heart here [i.e. earth] are cut asunder, then a mortal becomes immortal. Thus far is the teaching." (Katha Upanishad: 646-7)

Shankara (ca. 788 - 820 CE)
This ascetic tradition, which runs through some of the Upanishads (though it is certainly not dominant in all of them), culminates in Shankara. For example his Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (Viveka-Chudamani) contains a great many and remarkably vehement diatribes against the body and its earthly desires. Here are some of the 'highlights': "He who tries to find the Atman by feeding the cravings of the body, is trying to cross a river by grasping a crocodile, mistaking it for a log... Kill this deadly attachment to body, wife, children and others... This body, which is made up of skin, flesh, blood, arteries, veins, fat, marrow and bone, is full of waste matter and filth. It deserves our contempt." (Shankara 1975: 45) "O fool, stop identifying yourself with this lump of skin, flesh, fat, bones and filth." (Idem: 58) "Do not waste a moment in concern for worldly affairs or attraction to sense-objects... Regard it [the body] as impure, as though it were an outcast." (Idem: 80) "Escape the bondage and the rotten stench of worldliness... Detach yourself completely from this covering, the body, which is sluggish and foul. Having done this, never think of it again. To remember one's own vomit is merely disgusting." (Idem: 101-2) "The knower of Atman does not identify himself with his body. He rests within it, as if within a carriage... He dwells in the body, but regards it as a thing apart from himself -- like the cast-off skin of a snake." (Idem: 122-3) And so on, and so on...   

The orgasmic quality of ananda
This ascetic tendency in the Vedanta may seem surprising when one takes into account the fact that the Vedantic concept of ananda has strong sexual connotations and often indicates orgasmic pleasure (cf. Olivelle 1997). This sexual connotation comes out clearly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where the unification with Brahman -- and thus participation in the supreme bliss -- is directly compared to sexual bliss: "As a man when in the embrace of his beloved wife knows nothing without or within, so the person when in the embrace of the intelligent self knows nothing without or within." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 262) Of course, the comparison of man's unification with God to the sexual unification of man and wife is not unique to the Vedanta. Such mystical use of the imagery of marital love (what German scholars call Brautsmystik, "marital mysticism") can be found in many religions the world over (see e.g. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for thy love is better than wine..."). But the Vedanta is unique in that it uses such imagery to describe not just man's unification with God but the Divine itself! According to the Vedanta, Brahman is ananda, and therefore Brahman is the bliss experienced by the sage who attains unification with Brahman. Since the Upanishads compare the pleasure of this unification with sexual bliss, we must conclude that according to the Vedanta there is an orgasmic quality to Brahman itself. That is to say: Brahman, qua ananda, is a form of orgasmic pleasure. Brahman, we might say, is the orgasmic Absolute.

Tantric Yoga elaborated the orgasmic
aspect of the Vedantic concept of
Brahman as supreme bliss.
This corresponds to the already noted maximality of ananda, its infinite intensity. A sexual orgasm is commonly regarded as the pinnacle of human pleasure, the climax par excellence. Thus the ultimate pinnacle of pleasure, the bliss of Brahman, can be seen as the ultimate orgasm, the cosmic climax or ontological orgasm in which reality gives birth to itself. But how does this relate to the spiritual nature of ananda, the fact that it can only be attained through a process ethical and intellectual purification? How can the orgasm, this epitome of bodily pleasure, possibly be a model on which the understand the bliss of Brahman? Clearly we have to rid this orgasmic conception of ananda from its all too bodily connotations. In conformity with the 'ladder of ananda', where each form of joy becomes a hundred times stronger as it becomes less corporeal and more intellectualized, we should conceptualize ananda as intellectual orgasm, an orgasm of the mind. A common sexual orgasm must then be a faint shadow of this intellectual orgasm which is ananda -- or, in terms of the ladder of ananda, a sexual orgasm represents a mere hundredth of a hundredth of a hundredth -- and so on -- of the cosmic orgasm underlying reality as such.

The intellectual orgasm of absolute self-awareness
To fully understand why the Vedanta emphasizes this intellectual nature of ananda, we must return to the question why the Upanishadic sages made the inward turn, i.e. why they chose the human self as the model on which to understand Brahman. For, as noted earlier, what impressed them in the human self was not just its volitional aspect (the free will as a model for divine self-causation) but also its epistemological aspect, i.e. the relation of the self to sense experience and knowledge. Brahman thus became conceptualized, in the Upanishads, as the Universal Knower, the universal subject underlying all individual acts of experience, thought and knowledge. Since the Upanishads at the same time declare that nothing exists apart from Brahman, empirical reality is effectively reduced to the object of Brahman's consciousness. That is to say: empirical reality exists only insofar as Brahman experiences and knows it. It was this move that turned the Vedanta into a species of Absolute Idealism, on a par with the systems developed by Plotinus, Schelling and Hegel.

For the Vedanta, then, it holds that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by Brahman. But what, then, about Brahman's own existence? To be consistent, the Vedanta must claim that Brahman, too, exists only because it is thought / experienced by Brahman -- that is to say: Brahman exists because it thinks / experiences itself. Brahman, in other words, is self-causing through its self-awareness. This is indeed the answer we find in the Upanishads: "Brahman, indeed, was this in the beginning. It knew itself only as 'I am Brahman'. Therefore it became all." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168) Thus, as Radhakrishnan explains, in the Upanishads the term being "expresses simultaneously God's consciousness of himself and his own absolute self-absorbed being" (Radhakrishnan 1953: 54). Brahman's being, then, is its consciousness of itself. It should be noted that in this regard, too, the Vedanta is very close to Western Absolute Idealism, for there too the self-causation of the Absolute is explained in terms of self-awareness. Thus Plotinus: “The One [...] made itself by an act of looking at itself. This act of looking at itself is [...] its being.” (Ennead VI, 8, 16, 19-21) Thus Fichte: "The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself." (Fichte 1991: 98) Thus Schelling: “[I]t is through the self's own knowledge of itself that that very self first comes into being.” (Schelling 1800 [2001]: 27) We also find it in the American Idealist Royce: “[I]f whatever exists, exists only as known, then the existence of knowledge itself must be a known existence, and can finally be known only to the final knower himself, who, like Aristotle's God, is so far defined in terms of absolute self-knowledge.” (Royce 1899 [1959]: 400)

Alex Grey, Oversoul
It is this intellectual nature of Brahman's self-causation through absolute self-awareness that explains the intellectuality of the pure bliss that defines Brahman. What we should appreciate is how the volitional-emotional and epistemological aspects of Brahman's being coincide: Brahman's self-knowledge, self-willing and self-enjoyment are one and the same. Brahman's self-caused being is at the same time the highest pleasure and the highest knowledge. The sage who reaches this knowledge -- i.e. who realizes his unity with Brahman and thus 'loses' his empirical individuality -- at the same participates in the ontological orgasm that underlies reality as such. That sage not only experiences the pure bliss which is Brahman but at the same time participates in the creation process that produces the universe: "Whoever knows thus, 'I am Brahman', becomes this all... He who knows this as such comes to be in that creation of his." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 168, 165)  

All quotes from the Upanishads are taken from the translation by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1953).
2 This does, however, lead to an interesting side question: can we use modern mathematics to construct a correct ladder of ananda, i.e. a ladder that respects the infinite transcendence of divine bliss over human bliss? This question, of course, is irrelevant to the interpretation of the Upanishads. But it does matter for the continuing relevance of the Vedanta. If the philosophical core of the Vedanta is still to have truth value for us, and if the notion of a ladder of ananda forms an intrinsic part of that core, then that notion must allow of a precise and logical formulation. The modern mathematical theory of infinity, inaugurated by Cantor, seems especially relevant in this regard. Cantor's notion of Absolute Infinity, which is the entire sequence of transfinite ordinals but which itself is not mathematically construable, seems to be the mathematical analogon we need to make sense of Brahman's absolute bliss as the highest point of the ladder of ananda.

-Fichte, J.G. (1991), Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
-Olivelle, Patrick (1997), "Orgasmic Rapture and Divine Extacy: The Semantic History of Ananda", in: Journal of Indian Philosophy, 25, pp.153-180.
-Plotinus, Enneads, translation by A.H. Armstrong, Loeb edition.
-Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1953), The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.
-Royce, Josiah (1899 [1959]), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Schelling, F.W.J. (1800 [2001]), System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
-Shankara (1975), Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"Atman is Brahman" – How Absolute Idealism originated in Indian Philosophy

Absolute Idealism is a much misunderstood philosophical tradition. At least two stubborn prejudices stand in the way of its proper reception. One is that Absolute Idealism was refuted at the beginning of the 20th century by the founding fathers of Analytic Philosophy, and that it has henceforth become obsolete. In my previous post I already adduced several arguments why this view is wrong, i.e. why Absolute Idealism is in fact still 'alive and kicking'. In this post I want to focus on the second prejudice, namely, that Absolute Idealism was first and foremost a creature of the 19th century, created by the post-Kantian German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel) and then taken up and developed further by the Anglo-American Idealists (Green, Bradley, McTaggart, Royce).

In this post I want to show that Absolute Idealism did not originate in early 19th century Germany but rather in ancient India from roughly 1000 to 500 BCE. There the Hindu religious tradition, as originally expressed in the Vedas, underwent a radical transformation culminating in the Upanishads, the fons et origo of philosophical speculation in Indian thought (the Sanskrit term "Upanishad" literally means "sitting down near" and refers to the practice of a student sitting down near the teacher in order to receive esoteric teaching). During this transformation, the polytheism of the early Vedic religion was gradually rationalized into a philosophical monotheism which in the Upanishads took on the character of an Absolute Idealism, i.e. the belief in a transcendent Conscious Self – annunciated in the principle that "Atman is Brahman" – as the absolute ground of all reality. The resulting philosophical system, called Vedanta, will be the topic of this post. Please note that all quotes from the Upanishads are taken from the translation by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1953).

Was Absolute Idealism invented in the 19th century?
Absolute Idealism is often viewed as a creature of the 19th century, created by the post-Kantian German Idealists. A typical example of this view can be found in The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy: "Absolute idealism developed after Kant, notably with Hegel, and was popular in Britain from about 1865 to 1925. It takes many forms, but its central point is that there is only one ultimately real thing, the Absolute, which is spiritual in nature. Other things are partial aspects of this, or illusory appearances generated by it. Here idealism becomes a form of MONISM. The Absolute is so called because it alone does not depend on or presuppose anything and does not have its properties relative to something else." (Proudfoot & Lacey 2010: 173)

The substantive definition of Absolute Idealism given by the Routledge Dictionary is in itself – in all its brevity – quite adequate and instructive. But its historical claim that "Absolute idealism developed after Kant, notably with Hegel" is a flagrant case of historical myopia (or Eurocentrism, if you will). To be sure, the term "Absolute Idealism" originated with the post-Kantian German Idealists, who self-applied it in order to characterize their philosophy in contradistinction to Kant's Critical Idealism. But the philosophical point of view indicated by that term – the belief in a spiritual Absolute as the ultimate ground or essence of reality – is much older. In fact, it is as old as philosophy itself.

In the West the clearest case of Absolute-Idealist thinking prior to the German Idealists is the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, whose vision of the One clearly anticipated the doctrine of the Absolute as later developed by the post-Kantian Idealists (see Bréhier 1958; Beierwaltes 2004). But already well before Plotinus we find hints of Absolute-Idealist thinking in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, notably in Parmenides of Elea. His notorious claims that "thinking and being are the same" and that "all things are one, and this one is Being" are sometimes interpreted along Absolute-Idealist lines (see e.g. Dunham, Grant & Watson 2011: 10-18). But the few surviving fragments of his writings are too scanty to warrant any definite conclusions about what his philosophy amounted to.

If we want to find the true origin of Absolute Idealism – or at least its oldest recorded manifestation – we have to leave the West behind and journey not only deeper into the past but also further to the East, namely, to India in the 8th to 5th centuries BCE. This was a crucial period in human history, the so called Axial Age (Karl Jaspers), when from Greece to China independent rational thought first broke free from the bondage of traditional religious dogmas and myths. In India this step was accomplished by the anonymous sages behind the Upanishads as they began to rationalize the polytheistic mythology of the Hindu religion, as expressed in the Vedas, into a philosophical monotheism.

The result was the world's first full-blown system – or rather family of systems – of Absolute Idealism, precisely as defined above by the Routledge Dictionary: an Idealistic Monism recognizing only one 'thing' as ultimately real, the Absolute, which is spiritual in nature, and of which all other things are partial aspects or illusory appearances. As Radhakrishnan notes, "the general spirit of Indian thought", of which the Upanishads are the original source, "has a disposition to interpret life and nature in the way of monistic idealism, though this tendency is so plastic, living and manifold that it takes many forms and expresses itself in even mutually hostile teachings." (Radhakrishnan 1989: 32) At the end of this post, I will return to the different forms taken by this Idealistic Monism which is pervasive in Indian thought. First, however, we will take a closer look at the central ideas of the Absolute Idealism expressed in the Upanishads.

Brahman, the Vedantic Absolute
Those unfamiliar with Indian philosophy may be forgiven for never having heard of Hindu Absolute Idealism, since the terminology commonly used in relation to it is so very different. The resulting philosophical system (or rather family of such systems) is not usually known as Absolute Idealism but rather as Vedanta, literally meaning "end / culmination of the Vedas". Likewise for the spiritual Absolute as the ground of all reality, which in the Vedanta is known as Brahman – a term of unclear etymological origin, supposedly deriving from a Sanskrit root meaning "to grow, to burst forth". In the older Vedas "Brahman" meant primarily mantra or ritual prayer. It was only later, at the time of the earliest Upanishads, that the term came to indicate the object of prayer, that which is invoked by the prayer, the growing force underlying and permeating the universe (cf. Keith 1989: 445; Radhakrishnan 1989: 163, n.1).

Exactly how and why this semantic transition from "Brahman" as mantra to "Brahman" as the Absolute occurred is an interesting question which I will investigate in a following post. Let us now simply note that through this transition "Brahman" came to stand for the Absolute qua unconditioned ground of all reality (cf. Radhakrishnan 1953: 66). Brahman is that which explains all reality and which as such cannot be explained by anything other than itself. It is "that which, being known, everything else becomes known" (Mundaka Upanishad: 672). It is "the self-caused" (Katha Upanishad: 630; Svetasvatara Upanishad: 747). It "created itself by itself" (Taittiriya Upanishad: 549). And as such it is not relative to anything else but is "one without a second" (Chandogya Upanishad: 447-8).

To appreciate the revolutionary novelty of such an all-inclusive explanatory approach to reality, we only have to take a look at classical Greek philosophy. There anything comparable to the Vedantic notion of Brahman emerged only many centuries later in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, whose concept of the One points to a similarly self-creating Absolute. (There is even some evidence suggesting that Plotinus was influenced by the Vedanta; see Bréhier 1985.) Thus the Plotinian One represented a revolutionary development in Greek philosophy, where the existence of reality had always been taken for granted as unproblematic, as needing no explanation.

This can be seen from the fact that neither Plato's Demiurge nor Aristotle's Unmoved Mover presents us with an all-creating Deity. Leibniz’s famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing” simply did not occur to the ancient Greeks. They probably would have rejected that question as nonsensical. This has a lot to do with the fact that the Greeks simply had no conception of absolute nothingness (what philosophers nowadays call the "null state" in which nothing at all exists), which is reflected in the fact that they did not have the mathematical concept of zero either. For the Greeks it was simply unimaginable that the universe might not have existed.

The role of nothingness in late Vedic thought
The situation was very different in ancient India. There an acute philosophical awareness of the ontological possibility of absolute nothingness was already well in place before 1000 BCE, as testified by the famous Hymn of Creation (from the Rig Veda) which begins by describing the state preceding the creation of the universe: "Non-being then existed not nor being" (Radhakrishnan & Moore 1957: 23). As to why the ancient Indian mind, in contrast to the classical Greek mind, was so much more alive to the ontological possibility of nothingness we can only speculate. One reasonable speculation is that the explanation lies in the practice of meditation in ancient India (first termed "yoga" in the Upanishads), which had no counterpart in classical Greece. The "emptiness of consciousness" attained in meditation may very well have been the experiential source of the Indian concept of nothingness.

Fact is that this concept played an important role in Indian philosophy from early on. Note, for example, the philosophical acumen displayed by the anonymous author of the Hymn of Creation in his conscious effort to avoid ascribing existence to nothingness as a result of his negation of existence: at the beginning "being" did not yet exist but neither did "non-being". This shows a clear awareness of the logical paradoxes surrounding the concept of nothingness (comparable, for example, to Carnap's critique of Heidegger's concept of nothingness). As a result of this philosophical familiarity with the concept of nothingness, the urgency behind the question why something exists rather than nothing was sharply felt in ancient Indian thought. Thus, after having introduced the paradoxical notion of the void preceding the creation of the universe, the Hymn of Creation asks: "Whence was it born, and whence came this creation? / The gods were born after this world's creation. / Then who can know from whence it has arisen?" (Idem: 23-4) In this free questioning spirit, this skeptical and almost sacrilegious attitude towards the Vedic polytheism from which it sprang, the Hymn of Creation already makes the transition away from traditional myth towards independent rational thinking, pointing forwards to the Upanishads

The inward turn of the Upanishads
The ancient Indian mind, in its acknowledgement of the (paradoxical) possibility of nothingness and its subsequent search for the explanation of reality as such, was remarkably modern – more so than classical Greek thought. In a way the Upanishadic sages anticipated Leibniz's rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason, according to which there is an explanation for every fact, including the fact of reality's existence. The ancient Indian sages were the first philosophers in the world to feel this need to explain everything, as witnessed by their revolutionary postulation of Brahman as the self-causing cause of all reality. Thus the nagging questions raised in the Hymn of Creation – what preceded the creation of the universe? why and how did that creation occur? – received answers in the Upanishadic period.

The answers, we must stress, followed from a decisive new turn in Indian thought: the turn inwards, towards the mystery of human self-awareness as the key to the mystery of the cosmos. As Radhakrishnan writes: "When we pass from the Vedic hymns to the Upanishads we find that the interest shifts from the objective to the subjective, from the brooding on the wonder of the outside world to the meditation on the significance of the self. The human self contains the clue to the interpretation of nature." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 49)

It was this revolutionary turn inwards, towards the human self (the Atman), that finally turned Brahman into the Hindu equivalent of the Idealistic notion of the Absolute. The spiritual nature of Brahman as identical with Atman is announced in what are known as the four "Great Sayings" (Mahaavaakyas) of the Upanishads: (1) "Conscious is Brahman" (Aitareya Upanishad); (2) "This Self (Atman) is Brahman" (Mandukya Upanishad); (3) "Thou art That" (Chandogya Upanishad); (4) "I am Brahman" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad). Each of these sayings is a formulaic expression of the same idea: that the single and all-encompassing Brahman is in essence identical with the human Self – or, in other words, that the empirical plurality of individual human selves is really an illusion, because in reality there is only one Self, the Atman, the Universal Self which is Brahman. Thus the Upanishads declare that Brahman, as the absolute ground of reality, is in essence a conscious self.

Atman, the Universal Knower
Why did the Upanishadic sages make this inward turn? Why did they single out the human self as holding the key to the nature of the Absolute? As I will show in a following post, this is a very intriguing question that is not easily answered. Part of the story has to do with epistemology. For one of the things that impressed the Upanishadic sages in the self is its epistemological aspect, i.e. the relation of the self to sense experience and knowledge. We already noted how the Upanishads are remarkably modern in their anticipation of Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason and the concomitant question why there is something rather than nothing – a question that did not arise for the ancient Greeks. This remarkable modernity of the Upanishads also comes to the fore in the sharp awareness the Upanishadic sages had of the epistemological centrality of the self, insofar as they stressed the thoroughgoing dependence of objective empirical reality on the conscious subject to whom this reality appears. In this way the Upanishads anticipated the epistemological Idealism of modern philosophers such as Berkeley, Kant and Husserl. Much like the Kantian transcendental subject, the Vedantic Brahman was conceptualized as the universal Knower, the universal subject underlying all experience, thinking and knowledge.

Here the contrast with classical Greek philosophy is again instructive. The historian of ancient Greek philosophy M.F. Burnyeat (1982) has famously argued that epistemological Idealism was entirely absent in ancient Greece. He pointed out that although there certainly was epistemological skepticism in Greek philosophy (though mostly in its post-Classical, Hellenistic period), this skepticism never went so far as to doubt – let alone deny – the existence of an external reality (i.e. a reality independent from our consciousness of it). According to Burnyeat, such thoroughgoing skepticism became possible only after Descartes' cogito ergo sum argument, which placed the evidential basis for all certainty firmly within our consciousness and its representations ("ideas", "Vorstellungen") – representations from which the evidence for an external reality then had to be reconstructed. Only after this Cartesian turn to consciousness had been taken did it become possible for philosophers to deny the existence of any reality beyond our consciousness and thus for modern Idealism to arise.

But Burnyeat's thesis is expressly limited to Western philosophy. The situation in ancient Indian philosophy was, again, very different from early on. As we have seen, there something very much like the Cartesian turn to the subject had already been accomplished in the Upanishads with its inward turn, when the human self was chosen as the preferred model for understanding the nature of Brahman. And as said, what impressed the Upanishadic sages in the human self was partly its epistemological aspect, i.e. the fact that the self is presupposed by every experience, thought and feeling. A sensory experience is always experienced by a self; a thought is always thought by a self; a feeling is always felt by a self... But since, according to the Upanishadic sages, there is in truth only one Self, the universal Atman which is Brahman, they concluded that this Self must be the universal subject underlying all cognition.

In this way the Upanishadic concept of Atman came surprisingly close to the Kantian conception of the transcendental subject which underlies and unifies all individual acts of knowledge. Thus Brahman became "the knower of all" (cf. Mandukya Upanishad: 697; Svetasvatara Upanishad: 747), the universal "seer of seeing", "hearer of hearing", "thinker of thinking", "understander of understanding" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 220), the universal "witness" (Svetasvatara Upanishad: 746). The famous Vedantic scholar Shankara (ca. 788 – 820 CE) likewise calls Brahman "the witness of all experiences" (1975: 83). This means that reality is effectively reduced to an experience of Brahman, since the latter is also the cause of everything, the Absolute underlying all reality. That is to say: reality exists only insofar as it appears to Brahman, i.e. insofar as it is seen, heard, smelled, understood (and so on) by Brahman. With this step the Absolute Idealism of the Upanishads becomes complete: reality is nothing but a mental construct created by Brahman.

Pantheism vs. acosmism in the Vedanta
It is, however, in relation to this question – How does empirical reality relate to the single Brahman? – that considerable differences emerge in the Upanishads and also in later developments of the Vedanta. This is why, as noted earlier, the Upanishads do not present a single system of Absolute Idealism but rather a family of such systems. The Upanishads do not at all speak in one voice. Although all start out from the basic identity "Brahman is Atman", different strands in the Upanishads unpack this identity in different ways. Two basic strands or families can be distinguished: (1) the acosmic strand in which empirical reality is declared to be an illusion, since only the object-less consciousness which is Brahman exists, and (2) the pantheistic strand in which the reality of the empirical world is fully recognized and subsequently explained as an expression or manifestation of the consciousness which is Brahman.

This difference turns on how the consciousness which is Brahman is conceived: as self-consciousness or rather as object-less consciousness? Each view is associated with the name of a legendary Upanishadic sage. The first view, mainly associated with the sage Uddalaka, lays more stress on the self-hood of Brahman, viewing its consciousness as essentially self-consciousness. The other view, mainly associated with the sage Yajnavalkya, downplays the self-hood of Brahman and views its consciousness as essentially object-less and thus not as consciousness of a self at all, but rather as an empty consciousness, a pure consciousness without an object. Yajnavalkja appears prominently in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Uddalaka in the Chandogya Upanishad – the two oldest Upanishads, dating roughly from the 7th to 6th centuries BCE.

These different views have different implications for the relation of Brahman to the empirical world, the universe. The view associated with Uddalaka, which stresses that Brahman is essentially self-conscious, tends to see that relation as one of expression and participation: the universe is a progressive manifestation of Brahman, who gradually expresses himself (or rather itself) in the universe, reaching its fullest manifestation only in those sages who – through mystical intuition – finally realize their unity with Brahman. This family of views, then, tends to pantheism, the identification of the universe with (part of) Brahman. As Arthur Keith notes in his classic study The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads: "The pantheistic view is undoubtedly present in the many passages in which the development of the world from the absolute [sic] is expressed in metaphors: thus in the metaphor of the spider from which the thread proceeds, or the fire whence come forth the sparks. Often too the Atman is declared to pervade the whole of the universe, it is likened to the lump of salt which in water disappears, indeed, but leaves all pervaded by it [...]." (Keith 1989: 523)

The latter metaphor, of the salt dissolved in water, occurs in the celebrated dialogue of Uddalaka with his son Svetaku in the Chandogya Upanishad: "'Place this salt in the water and come to me in the morning.' Then he did so. Then he said to him, 'That salt you placed in the water last evening, please bring it hither.' Having looked for it he found it not, as it was completely dissolved. / 'Please take a sip of it from this end.' He said, 'How is it?' 'Salt!' 'Take a sip from the other end. How is it?' 'Salt!' 'Throw it away and come to me.' He did so. It is always the same. Then he said to him, 'Verily, indeed, my dear, you do not perceive Pure Being here. Verily, indeed, it is here. / That which is the subtle essence this world has for its self. That is the true. That is the self. That art thou, Svetaku.'" (Chandogya Upanishad: 463)

On Uddalaka's view, then, as the salt pervades the water, so the Atman pervades the entire universe. Brahman qua Atman is therefore not just the efficient cause of the universe but also its material cause, the 'subtle essence' of which everything is made. On the pantheist view, Brahman qua Atman is immanent to the universe. Other metaphors used to express this relation of the Atman to the universe invoke images of production, like sound coming from a flute: "As a spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as herbs grow on the earth, as the hair grows on the head and the body of a living person, so from the Imperishable arises here the universe... As from a blazing fire, sparks of like form issue forth by the thousands, even so, O beloved, many kinds of beings issue forth from the Immutable and they return thither too." (Mundaka Upanishad: 673, 680)

The other strand, associated with Yajnavalkya, stressing the object-less nature of Brahman as pure consciousness, tends rather to acosmism, the view that the existence of empirical reality is no more than an illusion, because in reality only Brahman qua pure consciousness exists. As Keith notes: "The theory which postulated an Atman of no real content [...] was the theory of Yajnavalkya. [I]t lays stress on the three propositions that (1) the Atman is the knowing self, is the subject of cognition; (2) that as such it can never be an object of knowledge of any sort; and (3) that beyond the Atman there is no reality at all, as it is the sole reality." (Keith 1989: 512) It is easy to see that from these propositions it follows that on Yajnavalkya's view reality is at bottom a void, an empty consciousness.

As the subject underlying all cognition, the Atman cannot itself ever be an object of consciousness. Yajnavalkya makes this crucial point in the famous dialogue with his wife Maitreya on the nature and (un)knowability of Brahman: "For where there is duality as it were, there one smells another, there one sees another, there one hears another, there one speaks to another, there one thinks of another, there one understands another. Where, verily, everything has become the Self, then by what and to whom should one speak, then by what and on whom should one think, then by what and whom should one understand? By what should one know that by which all this is known? By what, my dear, should one know the knower?" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 201)

On Yajnavalkya's view, then, the Atman cannot even be described as conscious of itself. The Atman is not self-consciousness but rather consciousness as such, pure consciousness without an object. This is reinforced by the other claim that nothing exists besides the Atman; so in effect there really is nothing for the Atman to be conscious of, since in truth there is no subject-object duality. This leads to the paradoxical result that once we attain insight into the true nature of Brahman, all differentiated reality disappears before our mind's eye as an illusion and what remains is just the reality of empty consciousness. It seems clear that this view, attributed to Yajnavalkya, anticipated much of what Buddhism would later say concerning consciousness and the emptiness of reality.

Later this difference between the acosmic and pantheist strands in the Upanishads became codified in the opposition between the Non-Dual (Advaita) Vedanta of Shankara (ca. 788 – 820 CE) on the one hand and the Qualified Non-Dual (Vishishtadvaita) Vedanta of Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 CE) on the other. Shankara, who accepts acosmism, sees only Brahman Nirguna (i.e. Brahman without any qualities) as fully real, explaining the empirical universe as an illusion (maya) arising from individual ignorance (avidya). As Radhakrishnan dramatically notes: "According to Shankara, it is some monstrous deformity of our vision that makes us see what is really one as if it were many." (Radhakrishnan 1997: 521 – my italics, PS) Ramanuja, by contrast, subscribes to the pantheist view and sees the universe as fully real, explaining it as the body of Brahman: as individual selves stand to their bodies, expressing and manifesting themselves therein, so Brahman stands to the universe as a whole.

Reception of Vedantic Idealism in the West
As noted earlier, the Upanishadic concept of Atman as the Universal Knower is surprisingly close to the Kantian conception of the transcendental subject which underlies and unifies all individual acts of knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that when the first translations of the Upanishads became available in the West during the early nineteenth century, the closeness of the Upanishadic philosophy to the dominant philosophy of the age – Kantian Idealism – was quickly noticed. Schopenhauer, in particular, stressed that the Upanishads had effectively anticipated Kant's philosophy, which in his view "leads to just the same result by a different path" (1958: vol. II, 475). This closeness to Kantian Idealism was also stressed by Paul Deussen, a renowned Indologist and admirer of Schopenhauer. Deussen even claimed that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason gave "the true scientific foundation of the Vedanta system" (1912: 55).

However, this comparison of the Vedanta to Kantian Idealism was not a very happy one. Kant, after all, still retained an unknowable "thing-in-itself" outside of all consciousness; the transcendental subject merely constructs empirical reality by imposing its order (time, space, causality etc.) on the raw sensory data caused by the thing-in-itself. In the Vedanta, however, nothing exists apart from Brahman, the self-causing cause of all reality. So there is no thing-in-itself to occasion the experiences witnessed by Brahman; somehow all these experiences flow from Brahman itself. Thus the Vedanta stands much closer to the post-Kantian Idealisms of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, who did away with Kant's concept of the thing-in-itself which they took to be illogical. After all, if the thing-in-itself is unknowable, how then can we know about its existence? And if causality is just a subjective form imposed on sensory data, as Kant said, how then can the thing-in-itself be the cause of those data? Hence the rejection of Kant's thing-in-itself by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. It was precisely this abolition of the thing-in-itself that turned their Idealism into Absolute Idealism, insofar as the transcendental subject remained as the sole existent and sole source of empirical reality, i.e. as the Absolute.

It is true that Schopenhauer, too, rejected Kant's notion of the thing-in-itself as being illogical. But his pessimistic Idealism, where reality is in essence nothing but a "blind Will to Life" which is eternally at war with itself, is a far cry from the Vedantic view of Brahman as supreme bliss – a view that is essentially optimistic. For Schopenhauer, ultimate deliverance meant just the cessation of all willing and thereby of all suffering – an essentially negative doctrine owing much more to Buddhism than to the Vedanta. In the Vedanta, deliverance is a supremely positive experience: participation in the bliss which is Brahman. It is a bit strange, therefore, that insofar as the Vedanta was taken up by 19th century German Idealists, these were primarily Kantian Idealists of a Schopenhauerian bend. To the Absolute Idealists – Fichte, Schelling, Hegel – the Vedanta was virtually unknown (Hegel doesn't even mention the Upanishads in his discussion of Indian Philosophy in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy), even though it fitted their philosophy much better than Schopenhauer's.

It seems likely that Schopenhauer's early appropriation of Indian philosophy prejudiced other Idealists against the latter, as it reinforced the impression that Indian philosophy was essentially nihilistic and effectively coincided with Buddhism. Professional recognition of the closeness of the Vedanta to Absolute Idealism came only during the first decades of the 20th century, notably through the work of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who introduced the Vedanta into the cultural circles of British Idealism (cf. Mander 2011: 537-8). By that time, however, British Idealism itself was already on the wane, due to the onslaught of Analytic Philosophy. The professional recognition of the Vedanta as a form of Absolute Idealism was therefore short-lived: it disappeared from academic view together with Absolute Idealism...

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-Mander, W.J. (2011), British Idealism: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-Proudfoot, M. & Lacey, A.R. (2010), The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge.
-Radhakrishnan, S. (1953), The Principal Upanishads. London: George Allen & Unwin.
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-Schopenhauer, A. (1958), The World as Will and Representation, Volume II. New York: Dover Publications.
-Shankara (1973), Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Leibniz's Question, the Crisis of Physicalism, and the Return of Absolute Idealism

A recurrent theme on this blog is the idea that we need some notion of
self-causation in order to answer Leibniz’s famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” If we define “reality” as the totality of what exists (including past and future existence), then by definition nothing exists outside of reality (not even ‘the nothing’). If we then presuppose the Principle of Sufficient Reason – that there is a sufficient reason for every fact, including the fact that reality exists – then it follows that the reason for reality’s existence must lie within reality itself, since there is nothing outside of it. And since we generally call the reason why something exists the cause of that something, we must conclude that reality has to be self-causing.

G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716)
In this post I will investigate this mysterious notion – the self-causation of reality – in light of the current crisis of materialism or what is nowadays rather known as physicalism, i.e. the ontology that takes (completed) physics as the final description of reality. It is a well-known fact that physicalism is presently under increasing attack, mainly by philosophers who point out the irreducibility of consciousness to a physicalist framework. Since self-causation is generally deemed impossible on a physicalist framework, the present crisis of physicalism means that the notion of self-causation gets a second chance.

Moreover, since it is
consciousness which is largely responsible for bringing on this crisis of physicalism, the question arises whether consciousness is perhaps the key to understanding the self-causation of reality. This takes us in the direction of Absolute Idealism, where the self-causing essence of reality is generally conceived of in terms of self-consciousness. Thus Absolute Idealism can be broadly summarized as the claim that reality exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences itself. It is through its self-consciousness, therefore, that the Absolute Mind lifts itself into existence – at least according to such Absolute-Idealist thinkers such Plotinus, Shankara, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Royce.

In the final sections of this post I will discuss two common mistakes about Absolute Idealism: (1) that Absolute Idealism was first and foremost a creature of the 19th century, invented by post-Kantian German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling and above all Hegel) and then passed on to Anglo-American Idealists (Green, Bradley, McTaggart, Royce); and (2) that Absolute Idealism was refuted at the beginning of the 20th century by the founding fathers of Analytic Philosophy, Russell and Moore, as well as by empirical science, and that Absolute Idealism has henceforth become obsolete. Both mistakes will be corrected by taking a closer look, firstly, at the millennia-old history of Absolute Idealism in both Eastern and Western philosophy and, secondly, at the remarkable return of Absolute-Idealist themes in contemporary Analytic Philosophy and physics.

Plotinus: The originator of self-causation in Western philosophy
As noted in the Introduction, we need the notion of self-causation in order to answer Leibniz’s famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Since there is nothing outside of reality as a whole, the reason for its existence can only lie within reality itself. In that sense, then, reality must be self-causing. This argument is nothing new and I certainly claim no originality for it. It has ancient roots in Western philosophy, going back as far as Plotinus, who appears to have been the very first Western philosopher to speak of God (or rather
the One in Plotinian terminology) as self-caused (cf. Gerson 2011: 34). Thus, to underscore the self-causing nature of the One, Plotinus says that “it itself makes itself [...] from nothing” (Ennead VI, 8, 7).

Plotinus (ca. 204/5-270)
introduced the notion of
self-causation in Western
Clearly, Plotinus does not mean here that the One has literally emerged out of nothing, as if at first there was nothing and then suddenly the One sprang into existence, like a ‘hiccup from the void’. Plotinus surely agreed with the supremely Greek principle that from nothing only nothing can come (ex nihilo nihil fit), which is precisely the reason why reality can ultimately come only from itself, such that we must postulate self-causation at the origin of reality. So when Plotinus says that the One makes itself “from nothing”, what he means is that nothing preceded the One (not even ‘nothing’), because the One is the all-inclusive reality. “The One is all things,” Plotinus writes, which is precisely the reason why the One qua “really existent All is in nothing; for there is nothing before it” (Enneads V, 2, 1 & VI, 4, 2). The One, then, is for Plotinus the self-causing core of all-inclusive reality, which must be self-causing precisely because there is nothing outside of it.

Physicalism and the fig-leaf conception of self-causation
From Plotinus this argument for a self-causing core to reality – what Pascal called “the God of the philosophers” – found its way to later philosophers, notably premodern and early modern philosophers such as Augustine, Descartes and Spinoza. In still later philosophers, however, we see this notion of self-causation gradually disappearing from view –
even in philosophers who agree with the argument motivating this notion, namely, the argument that reality must contain the reason for its own existence, since there is nothing outside of it.

John Leslie (1940-), one of the few
contemporary philosophers who
still use the notion of self-causation
Thus we see modern philosophers who agree with this argument use all kinds of fig-leaf conceptions of self-causation, i.e. euphemistic concepts that basically mean the same thing but sound ‘less offensive’ – concepts such as “explanatory self-subsumption” (Nozick), “self-explanation” (Rescher), “cosmic bootstrapping” (Atkins), and “self-excitation / self-synthesis” (Wheeler). (A notable exception, however, is John Leslie who, as a Neoplatonizing Spinozist, is quite happy to invoke self-causation.)

Why this dread of self-causation, when the point these thinkers wish to make – that the reason for reality's existence can only lie within it – clearly invites that notion? The reason behind this dread, I venture, lies in the rise of
physicalism as the dominant ontology of the modern age. I define “physicalism” as the ontology that takes reality to be primarily physical reality as described by mathematical-experimental physics. The truth of physicalist ontology has seemed – please note the past tense! – almost self-evident in light of the stunning experimental successes of modern physics (from classical mechanics to relativity and quantum theory). Physicalism was further reinforced by the victory of Neo-Darwinism, which seems to show that our consciousness is ‘just’ an evolutionary product of mechanical processes of molecular reproduction and natural selection.

Due to the resulting dominance of physicalism, the concept of causation
became virtually synonymous with “physical causation”. One could say that of the rich Aristotelian array of four types of causality – formal, material, final and efficient – only one survived: a denuded notion of efficient causality, limited to the physical realm and restricted by the mathematical laws uncovered by physics. But if physical causation is the only form of causation around, then obviously self-causation doesn't make much sense. Physical reality is essentially spatiotemporal, and – as I have argued extensively in my previous post – self-causation is impossible in time (so if reality has a self-causing cause, the latter must be atemporal).

is the main reason why modern thinkers avoid the notion of self-causation (even when agreeing with the general idea behind it), the reason being their – conscious or unconscious – acceptance of physicalism as the dominant ontology of our age. Modern science and philosophy have become so saturated with physicalism that self-causation has literally become unthinkable in current modes of thinking.

The crisis of physicalism
As noted, however, the truth of physicalism
has seemed almost self-evident – meaning that this is now no longer the case. The truth of physicalism as a general ontology is increasingly put into doubt by both philosophers and scientists. It seems fair to speak of a growing crisis of physicalism, mainly brought on by the troublesome phenomenon of consciousness.

The crisis stems partly from developments internal to physics, notably the notorious measurement problem in quantum mechanics and the curious role the latter accords to the conscious choices made by observer (cf. Rosenblum & Kuttner 2011). This does not mean, of course, that the truth value of physics is being questioned, which would be absurd in light of the tremendous experimental success of modern physics (
especially quantum mechanics). But the assumption, which once seemed self-evident to an earlier generation, that physics is the natural ally of physicalism, is increasingly put into question.

David Chalmers (1966-) pioneered
the Hard Problem of Consciousness
But the ontological meaning of quantum mechanics is notoriously hard to interpret (let alone its relation to consciousness), so the case of quantum mechanics has certainly not been decisive in bringing on the crisis of physicalism. Mostly, therefore, this crisis stems from purely philosophical work done on the so-termed “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the conceptual impossibility to explain consciousness fully in physical terms. Over the past few decades various strong conceptual arguments for this explanatory irreducibility of consciousness have been developed, notably the “knowledge argument” and the “conceivability argument” (cf. Chalmers 1996).

As a result, the philosophical landscape has changed dramatically, from a thoroughly physicalist one, where consciousness was accorded no independent status apart from the physical, to a much more ambiguous landscape with different philosophical positions stressing the ontological independence of consciousness – positions such as (Substance and Property) Dualism, Russellian Monism, Panpsychism, Panprotopsychism, Idealist Monism, etc.

The renewed relevance of Absolute Idealism
But if this is so, if the ruling days of physicalism are over, then perhaps the notion of self-causation can get a second chance? If consciousness is not reducible to the physical, then obviously there must be a strictly mental form of causation, i.e. a type of causality that is intrinsic to consciousness alone. After all, even if irreducible to the physical, consciousness remains ruled by causality: stimulation of the senses generally causes sensory perceptions, perceptions cause emotional and cognitive reactions, one thought leads to another, bodily movements follow upon exertions of the will, etc. Thus, given the irreducibility of consciousness, we must admit the existence of mental causation as irreducible to physical causation. But then the question arises: does mental causation allow us to make sense of the self-causation needed to explain reality as a whole?

To this question the philosophical tradition of
Absolute Idealism answers with a resounding “Yes”. To see why, let us note its central claim, which – although worked out differently by different thinkers – can be summarized as follows: everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences Itself. Thus the Absolute Mind lifts itself into existence (is causa sui, as philosophers up to Spinoza would say) by being aware of itself. This notion of an Absolute Self-Awareness as the self-causing cause of all reality is the central thread running through the millennia-old tradition of Absolute Idealism, the thread that ties together various philosophers who are sometimes separated by continents and millennia.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)
carried the tradition of
Absolute Idealism into
the 20th century
Thus e.g. the Vedantic sages of the Upanishads: “Brahman, indeed, was this in the beginning. It knew itself only as ‘I am Brahman’. Therefore it became all.” (Radhakrishnan 1953: 168) Thus Plotinus: “The One [...] made itself by an act of looking at itself. This act of looking at itself is [...] its being.” (Ennead VI, 8, 16, 19-21) Thus Schelling: “[I]t is through the self's own knowledge of itself that that very self first comes into being.” (Schelling 1800 [2001]: 27) Thus Royce: “[I]f whatever exists, exists only as known, then the existence of knowledge itself must be a known existence, and can finally be known only to the final knower himself, who, like Aristotle's God, is so far defined in terms of absolute self-knowledge.” (Royce 1899 [1959]: 400) Prompted by the tradition of Absolute Idealism, therefore, our question becomes: does self-awareness furnish us with a form of mental causation that amounts to self-causation?

The self-causing capacity of self-awareness
Why should self-awareness be seen as self-causing? The answer given by the various Absolute Idealists, even if it often remains largely implicit, is nevertheless clear: the self-aware subject essentially
is its own object of awareness, and therefore it only exists insofar as it is aware of itself. In other words: its existence is its awareness of itself. So, by being aware of itself, it bootstraps itself into existence. Adapting Berkeley’s famous formula “esse est percipi”, we can say that the esse of self-awareness is its percipi per se – that is: its being is its being perceived by itself. This does not mean, of course, we should accept Berkeleyan idealism tout court, only that Berkeley’s formula is especially well-suited to clarify the nature of self-awareness: its existence through self-perception (here, obviously, I presuppose that awareness of something is a kind of perception – but this is largely a verbal issue).

We should, however, beware not to extend this self-producing capacity of self-awareness to its empirical properties. As an empirical individual, I am aware of myself as a physical organism, with a particular name, a social identity, having all kinds of thoughts and feelings, etc. But surely my awareness of myself as having those properties does not imply my having created them. My self-awareness does not imply my being self-caused
as an empirical individual. Empirically, I exist to a large extent independently from the awareness I have of myself. The self-causing capacity of self-awareness, then, can apply only to the non-empirical aspect of self-awareness, or what I call pure self-awareness.

In order to uncover this pure self-awareness, consider the fact that to be truly self-aware it is not enough that you are aware of your empirical properties, what your body looks like, what you are doing right now, etc. To be truly self-aware, you must also be aware of the fact
that you are self-aware. That is: self-awareness must itself be one of the objects of which it is aware. This follows from the essence of self-awareness, since “a self-awareness unaware of itself” is clearly a contradiction in terms. Self-awareness, then, must have a circular structure: it must include self-awareness of self-awareness. This is what I mean by “pure self-awareness”. Note that the essential circularity of pure self-awareness fits the circularity required for self-causation hand in glove: just as the self-causing cause must be its own effect, so pure self-awareness must be its own object of awareness.

Is pure self-awareness
The wager of Absolute Idealism is that this is much more than just a vague analogy between two circularizes: it is an intrinsic connection, an essential identity. After all: pure self-awareness cannot exist without being aware of itself. This circularity, therefore, constitutes a necessary condition for the existence of pure self-awareness. And, clearly, it is also a sufficient condition for that existence, since if there is an awareness that is its own object of awareness, then that awareness ipso facto amounts to self-awareness (however empty and lacking in empirical properties it may otherwise be). Thus the essential circularity of pure self-awareness implies its self-causing nature, since that circularity is both a necessary and sufficient condition for its existence. By being aware of itself, pure self-awareness bootstraps itself into existence.

Hofstadter on the “strange loop” of self-awareness
The self-causing capacity of self-awareness has not just been noticed by philosophers with a metaphysical axe to grind. This capacity for self-causation, or at least the semblance thereof, has also been noted by the cognitive scientist Douglass Hofstadter, who focuses on self-referential structures (“strange loops”) as offering the key to the mystery of consciousness: “In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing,
[...] little miracles of self-reference.” (Hofstadter 2007: 363) Commenting on the “strange loop” of self-awareness, Hofstadter notes how this seemingly implies its self-causation: “It is almost as if this slippery phenomenon called “self-consciousness” lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing.” (Idem: xii)

But note Hofstadter's reservation: “almost as if”. What gets in the way of Hofstadter’s full endorsement of the bootstrapping of self-consciousness is his adherence to physicalism, which forbids self-causation. As a physicalist, Hofstadter takes consciousness to be ultimately reducible to physical processes (the brain interacting with its environment). Hence his conclusion that the self-causing aspect of self-awareness must be an illusion, because physical processes (as they take place in time) cannot be self-causing. Thus he takes the self-causing aspect of self-awareness to be ultimately an illusion, a “mirage” (idem: 363), a surface appearance produced by myriad micro-feedback processes in the brain, processes that obey the standard laws of physics: “The problem is that in a sense, an “I” is something created out of nothing. And since making something out of nothing is never possible, the alleged something turns out to be an illusion, in the end, but a very powerful one.” (Idem: 292)

But here the Hard Problem of Consciousness comes to our rescue. The Hard Problem of Consciousness shows the irreducibility of consciousness to physical and computational structures. This means that the self-producing structure of self-awareness need not be illusory simply because it is ruled out by physics. We see, therefore, that the Hard Problem of Consciousness opens the possibility that the self-causation of self-awareness is genuine.

Two common mistakes about Absolute Idealism
There are, however, two common mistakes about Absolute Idealism which stand in the way of its proper understanding and evaluation – mistakes which we therefore have to correct. These common prejudices are (1) that Absolute Idealism was first and foremost a creature of the 19th century, originating with the post-Kantian German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel) and then taken up and developed further by the Anglo-American Idealists (Green, Bradley, McTaggart, Royce); and (2) that Absolute Idealism was subsequently, at the beginning of the 20th century, refuted by the founding fathers of Analytic Philosophy, Moore and Russell in particular, as well as by empirical science, and has since then become obsolete.

The Sanskrit term "Upanishad" means "sitting down near"
and refers to the student sitting down near the teacher
in order to receive esoteric teaching
As regards the first prejudice, it is easily dispelled by even a cursory glance at the millennia-long history of Absolute Idealism in both Western and Eastern philosophy. This history arguably began in ancient India, notably in the Vedantic philosophy of the Upanishads (around the 7th century BCE). From there it migrated to the West, where it reached its first fully mature form in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (3rd century CE – it is quite possible that Plotinus was influenced by the Vedanta; see Bréhier 1958). To a large extent the post-Kantian German Idealists merely rediscovered / reconstructed this new type of Idealism inaugurated in the West by Plotinus (cf. Beierwaltes 2004). Plotinus, then, was not just the originator of the notion of self-causation in Western philosophy; he was also the first Western philosopher to make the Absolute-Idealist identification of the self-causing cause of reality with self-awareness.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970):
"It was towards the end of 1898 that
Moore and I rebelled against both
Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way,
but I followed closely in his footsteps."
(Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical
. London: Allen and
Unwin, 1959, p.42.)
Let us now turn to the second prejudice. Hasn’t Absolute Idealism been refuted by the founding fathers of Analytic Philosophy, Moore and Russell? And hasn’t it since then become obsolete? Well, histories of philosophy tend to present each new school of philosophy as arising by refutation of its predecessor, whereas the actual fact of the matter is often a lot more complicated. This holds no less for the “creation myth” of Analytic Philosophy, according to which the latter emerged by overthrowing the Absolute Idealism of the British Hegelians (who were the teachers of Moore and Russell). Recent historical scholarship has done much to discredit this triumphalist history. As Hylton notes in his Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy: “For every argument that Moore or Russell could mount against Idealism, there is an idealist reply which points out a distinction that is being neglected, or one that is drawn erroneously; an assumption smuggled in, or the sense of a term distorted.” (Hylton 1990: 105) In addition to this comes the fact that Absolute Idealism is currectly making something of triple comeback: two comebacks in Analytic Philosophy itself, and one comeback in contemporary physics. I will discuss these developments below.

The Normative Idealism of the Pittsburgh Hegelians
To begin with Analytic Philosophy, here we see Absolute Idealism return in both epistemology and the philosophy of mind. In epistemology we find the so called “Pittsburgh Hegelians” John McDowell and Robert Brandom, who have made a remarkable return to both Kant and Hegel by pointing out that conceptuality and rationality in general are intrinsically normative, having to do with how people
ought to think rather than with how they factually think. On the basis of this “normativity of the conceptual” they argue for a Hegelian form of conceptual holism, such that – to paraphrase Hegel – the truth lies only in the conceptual whole that includes empirical reality (cf. Redding 2007). For given the conceptually laden impact of empirical experience on thought, the empirical world must have a normative significance that cannot be accounted for in strictly physicalist terms. According to McDowell and Brandom, therefore, the empirical world turns out to have a normative-conceptual structure that is best understood in terms of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, where there is nothing outside of conceptual whole of “Absolute Knowledge”. I hope to be able to say more about Pittsburgh Hegelianism in later posts on this blog.

From the Hard Problem of Consciousness to Absolute Idealism
In the philosophy of mind, as we have already noted, we see the Hard Problem of Consciousness (HPC) give rise to serious doubts concerning the physicalist ontology adopted by earlier analytic philosophers. As a result, the philosophical landscape has changed dramatically, from a thoroughly physicalist one, where consciousness was accorded no independent status apart from the physical, to a much more ambiguous landscape with different competing philosophical positions stressing the ontological independence of consciousness – positions such as Property Dualism, Russellian Monism, Panpsychism, Micropsychism, and Idealist Monism.

In this context Absolute Idealism, too, is being reconsidered as perhaps the best response to the HPC (cf. Sprigge 1983; Hutto 2000; D'Oro 2005). The simple but crucial point here is that if consciousness is irreducible to physical reality (as the HPC shows), then mind-body interaction is only possible if the converse reduction holds, i.e. if physical reality reduces to consciousness. But this claim, that physical reality reduces to consciousness, amounts to Idealist Monism. Therefore: the HPC + mind-body interaction = Idealist Monism. And Idealist Monism is only a few steps away from Absolute Idealism.

The mystery of mind-
body interaction
Let us consider the above argument in some more detail. On the one hand, the HPC shows that consciousness cannot be explained in exclusively physical terms, such as brain activity. Thus the HPC refutes physicalism. But how, then, do consciousness and physical reality interact? There is no denying that such interaction takes place. Stimulate the brain and as a result consciousness changes. Conversely, a conscious exertion of the will usually results in limbs moving etc. How is this mind-body interaction possible if physicalism is false? The HPC leaves open only two possibilities: either consciousness and physical reality are two mutually independent realms of reality (Dualism) or physical reality is ultimately explainable in terms of (i.e. reduces to) consciousness alone (Idealist Monism). But, clearly, Dualism cannot account for mind-body interaction. For how could two utterly different and mutually independent realities possibly interact? (See e.g. the absurdity of Descartes' pineal gland.) Thus, since the HPC leaves open only these two possibilities, Dualism and Idealist Monism, the latter option must be true – that is: physical reality must ultimately reduce to consciousness, because consciousness can obviously interact with consciousness.

In other words: if we conceive of physical reality as a kind of manifestation of consciousness itself, then mind-body interaction becomes unproblematic. For then this interaction is ‘simply’ a case of consciousness interacting with one of its own manifestations, thus with itself in a sense. Of course, there really is nothing ‘simple’ about such Idealist Monism, since we still need an account of
how consciousness produces the physical.

But Idealist Monism is not necessarily the same as Absolute Idealism. So how do we get from the former to the latter? Here the following consideration seems to be relevant. We already saw that the HPC saves the self-causation of self-awareness from the critique by physicalism. But the relation works the other way as well: the self-causation of self-awareness
explains the HPC, i.e. it explains why consciousness is irreducible to physical reality. From the self-causation of self-awareness, after all, we have to conclude that self-awareness is the self-causing cause of reality as such – in other words: consciousness (in the form of self-awareness) is the basic ‘stuff’ of which reality consists, reality’s most primitive constituent. From this it obviously follows that consciousness is irreducible: it cannot be explained in terms of anything besides itself. Consciousness can only be explained in terms of consciousness, ultimately in terms of self-awareness.

Thus, when Chalmers (1995: 200) writes: “There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain”, he
thinks he is stating a paradox (“despite its intimacy, we can't explain consciousness”), whereas in fact he is stating the very explanation of consciousness’ irreducibility. For it is precisely the intimacy with which we know conscious experience (i.e. the self-evident experience of our own self-awareness, with its self-causing capacity) that explains why consciousness is reality’s most basic constituent.

John A. Wheeler (1911-2008)
The Absolute Idealism of Wheeler’s Self-Observing Universe
Beyond philosophy, moreover, we see Absolute Idealism return in contemporary physics (
the paradigm of empirical science, at least for most analytic philosophers), notably in John A. Wheeler's theory of the Self-Observing Universe. Drawing on Idealist tendencies in both quantum mechanics (the observer dependency of wave function collapse) and digital physics (the constitutive importance of information for physical reality), the theoretical physicist Wheeler argued that the totality of physical reality – i.e. the universe – brings itself into existence by evolving those conscious subjects whose scientific observations and binary yes/no questions give “tangible reality” to the mathematical structure which is the universe. As Paul Davies summarizes: “Conventional science assumes a linear logical sequence: cosmos → life → mind. Wheeler suggested closing this chain into a loop: cosmos → life → mind → cosmos.” (Davies 2006: 281)

Wheeler's U diagram of
the Self-Observing Universe
For Wheeler, then, the universe is the self-creating Absolute, the Whole that brings itself into existence through mediated self-observation (mediated, namely, by the observers existing in the universe). In this way Wheeler resurrected the core idea of Absolute Idealism (the self-creation of Absolute Self-Awareness) within the context of contemporary physics. To be sure, Wheeler's theory of the Self-Observing Universe is so far nothing more than a hypothesis, or rather – as Wheeler himself stressed – an “idea for an idea”. It is by no means yet an empirically testable hypothesis, let alone a well-established scientific theory. Nevertheless, the fact that it presents a distinct scientific possibility, worthy of further investigation, is acknowledged by many physicists. (I discuss Wheeler’s hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe in more detail here and here.) All in all, then, Absolute Idealism is still a live option, both in philosophy and science.

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