Thoughts in the atmosphere

Things of the world, and out of it.

Ancient Indians – some of them were materialists like us!

Posted by desicontrarian on June 6, 2009

There was a discussion a while ago on Carvakas – ancient Indian materialist philosophers. The writers were mostly admiring them for their boldness, bravery and general clarity of scientific thought. It was clear that they were sick of Ancient India’s spiritualism.

Ever since the colonial encounter, the West has associated India strongly with its spiritual tradition—often out of sympathy, respect, and the best of intentions, but sometimes dismissively as “the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices.”[3] But such assessments are problematic. As Amartya Sen has argued, the history of India is incomplete without its tradition of scepticism. To see India “as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplification of India’s past and present.” The West, Sen claims, focused unduly on India’s spiritual heritage, on “the differences—real or imagined—between India and the West,” partly because it was naturally drawn to what was unique and different in India.

The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions. While India has … a vast religious literature [with] grand speculation on transcendental issues … there is also a huge—and often pioneering—literature, stretching over two and a half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now

The problem with materialism is the idea that whatever the five senses and the mind perceive, must be the truth. Not only that, that what is not perceived by these faculties, does not exist.
We also need to look at the perceiving apparatus.
If all communicating human beings were blinded for a few generations, colors, rainbows, clouds and the oceans would not be perceived properly – if at all. If some scientists then invented a seeing instrument, then these things would be perceived according to the capacity of the seeing instrument. As the instruments were improved by the scientists, more and more contours, shapes and sizes would come into perception.
There was a time when we did not know that electricity and magnetism existed. We did not know that x-rays, ultra-violet and infra-red rays, sounds below the hearing threshold etc existed. A Carvaka in those times would be justified in saying that these things did not exist, they were pure speculation to fool the people.
From a neuro-scientific point of view, we could say that any experience is only a matter of neural firings in the brain. Thus we could experience and see things which did not really exist. I believe Francis Crick takes this position in The Astonishing Hypothesis. In that case, nothing exists but patterns in the brain. Then who can verify whether the brain exists? Further, whether you and I exist? This will lead to Descartes!
Immanuel Kant is one thinker who has written about these matters very well. The best development of his thoughts come from P.D.Ouspensky – in his books Tertium Organum and A New Model of the Universe.
Ancient Indians have also contemplated and debated from these alternative models of knowledge. The Idealist schools focused on the instruments of knowledge, based on the reason that precise instruments were needed for proper perception, and poor instruments lead to faulty knowledge. Therefore it was necessary to know and refine the instruments of knowledge. This gave rise to the idea “Know Thy Self”.

Happy Carvakas!

Ajita Keshakambalin, a prominent Carvaka and contemporary of the Buddha, proclaimed that humans literally go from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:

Man is formed of the four elements. When he dies, earth returns to the aggregate of earth, water to water, fire to fire, and air to air, while his senses vanish into space. Four men with the bier take up the corpse: they gossip as far as the burning-ground, where his bones turn the color of a dove’s wing and his sacrifices end in ashes. They are fools who preach almsgiving, and those who maintain the existence [of immaterial categories] speak vain and lying nonsense. When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death.

According to the Carvaka, the soul is only the body qualified by intelligence. It has no existence apart from the body, only this world exists, there is no beyond—the Vedas are a cheat; they serve to make men submissive through fear and rituals. Nature is indifferent to good and evil, and history does not bear witness to Divine Providence. Pleasure and pain are the central facts of life. Virtue and vice are not absolute but mere social conventions. The Carvaka advised:

While life is yours, live joyously;

None can escape Death’s searching eye:

When once this frame of ours they burn,

How shall it e’er again return?

Ever since the European enlightenment, scientific materialism has been the dominant philosophy of the modern age. Thinking people find it easy to accept and internalize. Bertrand Russell and the logical positivists have developed this philosophy to its peak.

The problem with materialism is the idea that whatever the five senses and the mind perceive, must be the truth. Not only that, that what is not perceived by these faculties, does not exist.

We also need to look at the perceiving apparatus.

If all communicating human beings were blinded for a few generations, colors, rainbows, clouds and the oceans would not be perceived properly – if at all. If some scientists then invented a seeing instrument, then these things would be perceived according to the capacity of the seeing instrument. As the instruments were improved by the scientists, more and more contours, shapes and sizes would come into perception.

There was a time when we did not know that electricity and magnetism existed. We did not know that x-rays, ultra-violet and infra-red rays, sounds below the hearing threshold etc existed. A Carvaka in those times would be justified in saying that these things did not exist, they were pure speculation to fool the people.

From a neuro-scientific point of view, we could say that any experience is only a matter of neural firings in the brain. Thus we could experience and see things which did not really exist. I believe Francis Crick takes this position in The Astonishing Hypothesis. In that case, nothing exists but patterns in the brain. Then who can verify whether the brain exists? Further, whether you and I exist? This will lead to Descartes!

Immanuel Kant is one thinker who has written about these matters very well. The best development of his thoughts come from P.D.Ouspensky – in his books Tertium Organum and A New Model of the Universe.

Ancient Indians have also contemplated and debated from these alternative models of knowledge. The Idealist schools focused on the instruments of knowledge, based on the reason that precise instruments were needed for proper perception, and poor instruments lead to faulty knowledge. Therefore it was necessary to know and refine the instruments of knowledge. This gave rise to the idea “Know Thy Self”.

The writer of this article then responded to my comments.

There are many “problems” with materialism depending on how it is defined and who is assessing. Materialistic ontology can range from mechanical to physicalistic, reductive to emergent, or commit not much more than a rejection of supernatural categories. How and what kind of knowledge one gains about one’s notion of reality is another variable (epistemology conditions, and is conditioned in turn by ontology). Two ways we encountered in the Carvaka context are sense perception and inference. So yes, the perceiving apparatus and the mind are pivotal to all knowledge. Even knowing thyself is inescapably shaped by them.

I responded to that.

We can’t know how inescapable this is. Initial conditions would be so. But as the skill in self-observation improves, internal errors could be more quickly detected. Just a hypothesis, since most of us have not even started on this.

There’s plenty of yoga and meditation literature by practitioners that provide detailed maps of stages in self-observation.

In a small booklet called Alternative States of Consciousness, Daniel Goleman has rigorously described a 7-stage process of Buddhist meditation with 4 “rational” and 3 “super-rational” stages in a Self-observer’s journey.

The first 4 stages as I remember are:

1. Initial (on an object of contemplation)
2. Access (to the object)
3. Merger (with the object)
4. Bliss.

The next 3 stages are:

5. Infinite space(or emptiness)
6. Infinite consciousness.
7. Neither perception nor non-perception.

I find the study believable and fascinating.

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