The Life Divine – Reading Group, Session #5 [6/28]


(Ed Mahood) #30

And the operative words in the first part of that quote are “in a certain sense”. Yes, in a certain sense matter is something non-existent, but not in the sense of our everyday experience, which is what – and I’m going to go out on a limb here – the vast majority of humans being take as their starting point for figuring out “reality”. I would personally argue that it would do us all well to refine the understanding of what we believe “reality” to be, but I’m still curmudgeony enough to believe that this isn’t going to happen today, or tomorrow, or even the day after, for that matter.

Now, having said that, I would agree that the chapters on matter provide what may be needed to revive the cat, but those same chapters are the ones that I can well imagine S.A.'s critics could use to argue against his “arguments”. These are coherent and consistent if you accept his initial presupposition (which he, unlike too many of his critics, is more than open about and willing to clearly state). One such statement, for example, is on p. 278 when he is talking about the sevenfold chord of being. If you, however, start with matter, and as good materialists most often do also end with matter, well, he is simply isn’t making sense. To them, only matter matters. It’s an exceedingly short chain of reasoning.

This is, to my mind, the materialists’ problem. If you start at point A with assumptions X, Y, and Z, you can only get so far in your search for knowledge or truth, even on the materialists’ own terms. This does not mean this is how reality is or functions, but it’s what they end up with and there’s not a lot one can do except let them go and move on. A slightly different case obtains with “agnostic materialists” or especially “true-believer non-materialists”, groupings to whom an increasing number of people are counting themselves. As our own reading group shows there are serious-minded individuals who want to know more about “how all of this” might really work.

The life and death of the cat are in certain regards much easier to deal with than, say, the torturing of the cat. Torture works (as the unnecessary inflicting of pain) because of how matter exists in our everyday experience. There is the real phenomenon of pain, and that’s what the cat would be experiencing when it is being tortured. I doubt the cat has the ability to do with its pain what you did with your toothache, and it really shouldn’t have to. The cat, unfortunately, is the victim of an even more unfortunate human being who is deriving his bliss at the expense of another living creature. You don’t have to be wrestling with the notion of an ever-present-ultimate-bliss-behind-all-phenomena to acknowledge that torture is morally repugnant, which is why the vast majority of us avoid torturing other creatures (though we get a lot less sensitive, I sometimes think, when we start getting near other human beings … oddly enough).

Many scientologists pride themselves in refusing anesthetics when operative procedures are being performed on them. There are innumerable stories of yogis who can “transcend” pain, and there are plenty of accounts of Buddhist devotees who are able to do the same. These are phenomena that are, I believe, not well understood and should be explored and investigated more seriously and more deeply, and with a much broader research agenda than “just” a materialistic one, but that will most likely be a long time coming as well. In the meantime, any “mental” coming-to-terms with phenomena that are generally not come to terms with by “mental” means (like your toothache) provide further anecdotal evidence for rethinking the relationship between mind and body (to put it in its simplest terms). Merely recognizing that there is something here worth considering more deeply is a sound step in an ultimately beneficial direction.


(Marco V Morelli) #31

I would double-heart that all, Mr. Mahood. :heart_eyes_cat:

@Don_Salmon, do you think we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter?

The inquiry continues. I am suddenly curious: how might one torture a rainbow?

What would be the ethics of that?


(Ed Mahood) #32

And the operative words in the first part of that quote are “in a certain sense”. Yes, in a certain sense matter is something non-existent, but not in the sense of our everyday experience, which is what – and I’m going to go out on a limb here – the vast majority of humans being take as their starting point for figuring out “reality”. I would personally argue that it would do us all well to refine the understanding of what we believe “reality” to be, but I’m still curmudgeony enough to believe that this isn’t going to happen today, or tomorrow, or even the day after, for that matter.

Now, having said that, I would agree that the chapters on matter provide what may be needed to revive the cat, but those same chapters are the ones that I can well imagine S.A.'s critics could use to argue against his “arguments”. These are coherent and consistent if you accept his initial presupposition (which he, unlike too many of his critics, is more than open about and willing to clearly state). One such statement, for example, is on p. 278 when he is talking about the sevenfold chord of being. If you, however, start with matter, and as good materialists most often do also end with matter, well, he is simply isn’t making sense. To them, only matter matters. It’s an exceedingly short chain of reasoning.

This is, to my mind, the materialists’ problem. If you start at point A with assumptions X, Y, and Z, you can only get so far in your search for knowledge or truth, even on the materialists’ own terms. This does not mean this is how reality is or functions, but it’s what they end up with and there’s not a lot one can do except let them go and move on. A slightly different case obtains with “agnostic materialists” or especially “true-believer non-materialists”, groupings to whom an increasing number of people are counting themselves. As our own reading group shows there are serious-minded individuals who want to know more about “how all of this” might really work.

The life and death of the cat are in certain regards much easier to deal with than, say, the torturing of the cat, an example which came up in the Session #5 discussion. Torture works (as the unnecessary inflicting of pain) because of how matter exists in our everyday experience. There is the real phenomenon of pain, and that’s what the cat would be experiencing when it is being tortured. I doubt the cat has the ability to do with its pain what you did with your toothache, and it really shouldn’t have to. The cat, unfortunately, is the victim of an even more unfortunate human being who is deriving his bliss at the expense of another living creature. You don’t have to be wrestling with the notion of an ever-present-ultimate-bliss-behind-all-phenomena to acknowledge that torture is morally repugnant, which is why the vast majority of us avoid torturing other creatures (though we get a lot less sensitive, I sometimes think, when we start getting near other human beings … oddly enough).

Many scientologists pride themselves in refusing anesthetics when operative procedures are being performed on them. There are innumerable stories of yogis who can “transcend” pain, and there are plenty of accounts of Buddhist devotees who are able to do the same. These are phenomena that are, I believe, not well understood and should be explored and investigated more seriously and more deeply, and with a much broader research agenda than “just” a materialistic one, but that will most likely be a long time coming as well. In the meantime, any “mental” coming-to-terms with phenomena that are generally not come to terms with by “mental” means (like your toothache) provide further anecdotal evidence for rethinking the relationship between mind and body (to put it in its simplest terms). Merely recognizing that there is something here worth considering more deeply is a sound step in an ultimately beneficial direction.


(Don Salmon) #33

Ed, fantastic, wonderfully provocative thoughts (and Marco too - much appreciated).

Marco, do you have a textual reference - you have referred a number of times to he Supermind “doing” something. My understanding of what Sri Aurobindo writes about this is there is One Being (or alternatively, “Being” which is not one or many) and Vijnana (I’m using the Sanskrit to shift our attention way from assumptions about the English word “Supermind”) is simply a faculty or instrument of Being, as is mental, vital and physical consciousness. If there’s somewhere in the chapters we’ve covered where Sri Aurobindo appears to be talking about Supermind as an entity “doing” something i’d be interested in seeing where i missed it.

Ed, you wrote: If you, however, start with matter, and as good materialists most often do also end with matter, well, he is simply isn’t making sense."

My limited understanding of the philosophy of matter is that most philosophers of science have thrown in the towel on “Materialism” since there is much in the ordinary physicists’ cosmos that does not meet the definition of “matter.” So now we have physicalism. I have never yet heard a coherent non-tautological definition of “physical.” From my understanding, before we can challenge Sri Aurobindo on his presentation of “matter,” we might do well to understand the critics.

Can you tell me what “physical” means?


(Ed Mahood) #34

Once again, I’m going to have to disappoint you on this one. :wink:

Einstein’s equation threw a huge monkey wrench into Newton’s machinery, to be sure. What was once only-that-which-can-be-seen has been augmented by effects-that-can-be-seen (given the appropriate tools and measuring devices). So, whereas “matter” was perhaps once what we thought of as “real stuff”, physicalism includes things like forces and fields and energy states affecting “stuff”, both seen and unseen. What was once so simple has taken on new layers of complexity, but not necessarily clarity.

And while there may be some kind of general agreement that matter no longer matters, I don’t really see that we’re in any different place than we were before. (To me, there’s an analogy to the “stages” issue that was raised elsewhere about psychologists: 95% of whomever (psychologists, physicsts, or < fill-in-the-blank >) can “reject” a notion, but they find other ways of re-disguising it and bringing in the back door.) I suppose, naively of course, that “physical” is whatever those who like to measure can measure. But I could certainly be all wet.

My scientific colleagues will (rightfully so) get on my case for oversimplifying, but I don’t think we’ve changed the thinking, I think we have only changed the labels we use to talk about things.


(Don Salmon) #35

ok, so the point I’m making, I’ll try to make more clearly, is this:

Sri Aurobindo is saying, as I understand him, that the very “substance” or foundation of Reality is intelligent, Conscious, blissful Being.

As I understood your challenge from the “materialists,” whatever our definition of matter or physical or forces or fields or whatever stuff, their essential point is that the foundation of Reality is non-intelligent, non-conscious, non feeling, non -sentient, non-Being.

If they have no coherent definition of physical or forces or fields etc, then I don’t see how there can be any basis to their challenge. They’re, as Wolfgang Pauli liked to say, not just wrong, but “not even wrong.”

In fact, your “physical is whatever those who like to measure can measure,” is EXACTLY what I’ve found to be the ultimate definition of philosophers of science as well as scientists over nearly 50 years. I was on the “Journal of Consciousness Studies” list, with 600 philosophers and scientists, for nearly 8 years. People with advanced post graduate degrees and international reputations seriously put forth the idea that saying “physical” is whatever physicists study" is a legitimate definition of the word “physical.”

it’s like “explanation.” Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg had a friend tell him one day, “You know, science doesn’t explain anything, it only describes.” Well of course this horrified him, having NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT THIS!!! after a lifetime in science and realizing with utter dread that his friend might be right. So he writes a LONG essay in 2003 and (almost) concludes that it was true. But then weasels his way out of it by saying, "Well, that’s what philosophers think But they have no right to dictate to us scientists (you know, the REALLY smart people) what “explanation” means. So if we take it to mean “extremely strong correlation” (which is all that physicalists can do with regard to causation - as Rumi noted over 800 years ago) then that’s what explanation means. "

Which of course means his friend was right and science as it stands today explains nothing. (similarly, Richard Wiseman admitted parapsychology has just as good results as any area of science, but because it is “extraordinary” it needs extraordinary proof, but has never been able to explain WHY it’s extraordinary.

So this seems to come back to “in a certain sense.” I understand Sri Aurobindo to mean, in the sense taken by physicalists - he states this directly in one of his letters - uh oh, i’m getting tornado like again - maybe I’ll post it and put up a link - it’s one of my favorite writings on the absurdity and incoherence of physicalism I’ve ever come across. If you take “matter” or “physical” to mean something that exists apart from any kind of consciousness, then yes, it is non existent and unreal. At least, that’s what I understand Aurobindo to say. Alan Wallace, with his theory of ontological relatively, shows how it’s virtually impossible to imagine or even conceive what “matter” could be apart from any kind of Consciousness whatsoever. It’s like imagining the word “object” could have any meaning apart from “subject.” So, that would mean there is no “cat” if by "cat’ you mean something purely physical. It’s not just that it doesn’t exist, it couldn’t and it’s virtually - literally - inconceivable and unimaginable.

I could be wrong>))


(Ed Mahood) #36

All I can say, Don, is, I couldn’t agree with you more.

Most (no, too much) of my effort over the years has been in trying to “understand” materialists/physicalists/whatever, and I never really got anywhere because that approach left way more out than it ever even described. Pauli nailed it.

What I like in particular about Sri Aurobindo is that he’s putting on the table a whole lot of things that should have been engaged seriously for quite some time, but were not, for whatever reasons. To me, he’s all about the More. And, it’s this more that is so disconcerting about him, I think, because we haven’t yet learned how to deal with it in a reasonable manner.


(Don Salmon) #37

Well, I can agree with you more!

Here’s the letter. It’s an exchange between Sri Aurobindo and Dilip Kumar Roy, one of the great Indian classical musicians of the early 20th century - one of 4000 letters Aurobindo wrote to him. It’s in reference to a letter from Krishna Prem, a British friend of Dilip. I’m going to see if I can find the referenced letter from Krishna Prem, because it is truly brilliant, inspired even.

I notice, by the way, that both Marco and Fred, during the Zoom session, seemed to keep referring (I’m not sure I understood, just guessing) to the “cat” as hey, it’s tangible, it’s “really” there.

It’s exactly this “really” that I believe Sri Aurobindo is challenging and I don’t think it’s an easy challenge - and I think it will be more appealing to Durwin, who knows the non dual scene very well, that Sri Aurobindo is NOT saying it’s not “really” there in the way we think along the same lines as Osho, Ramana Maharshi, Mooji, Shankara, or even Nagarjuna. It’s something profoundly different, which has to do with Vijnana (not the Zen Vijnana, for those familiar with that)


(Geoffrey Edwards) #38

All very well and good, although I don’t agree. You may call “explanation” a kind of description, but it is a very particular kind, consisting of comparing structures from one domain and mapping them to structures in another. If you want to call this “description” go right ahead, but don’t turn around with “explains nothing” - this has become a tautology. You have already defined explanation away. In terms of mapping structures across domains, for example, from the mathematical domain to other domains, then “explanations” in science abound. And I dare you to find something in Aurobindo’s writing that does anything different - he is also mapping structures across domains, albeit very different ones. If you argue that mapping structures from one domain to another is not very interesting, or not very relevant in human terms, then I think that is a very different argument, and I think the answer depends on which goals you want the explanation to serve.

This is also beside the point. Science uses standard, well defined methods, and through an iterative process seeks to develop theoretical explanations that are consistent, repetitive (within certain constraints), and of general applicability, and are connected to existing theory. The rub with parapsychology is the latter. There exist theoretical explanations, well defined methods (although there is room for improvement), and a certain level of reproducibility to the results (although this is often questioned). The problem is that the theories don’t connect well with the existing body of theory, and hence lack credibility to most main stream scientists. Theories that propose radical constructs not included in current general theory are generally rejected unless there is sufficient evidence across a large enough range of observed behaviours that requires one to accept the radical constructs. This is not easy, and never has been easy, in science. Einstein, who proposed a number of radical constructs, had to overcome huge resistance to achieve widespread acceptance of his theories. It wasn’t until compelling evidence supported him (the 1919 eclipse of the sun and the displacement of the orbit of Mercury) that larger numbers of scientists came around, and even then there was resistance into the '30s by some. Also other physicists came along and helped extend Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to better link it to mainstream understandings. Until parapsychology has the same level of “proof” (I prefer the term evidence to proof - only mathematical proofs are truly conclusive), and the bridges to mainstream theory have been made clearer, it will remain in the grey zone around science.

I think the issue of matter and its relevance is a different question, but I note that Aurobindo is careful to suggest that his ideas are compatible with (or have I simply inferred this?) modern science. I know Teilhard de Chardin made it clear his ideas were meant to be commensurate with science. So I don’t think we are arguing against science here, but against a certain kind of materialism which some (but by no means all) scientists maintain to be true.


(Don Salmon) #39

Hi Geoffrey:

These are fantastic answers and I think they could lead us to where I perceive the greatest difficulty to be in understanding Sri Aurobindo on his own terms.

But Geoffrey, I’m not sure I could say I agree or disagree since I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Let me check.

If I have this correctly, here is your definition of "explanation:

Explanation: Comparing structures from one domain and mapping them to structures in another, for example, from the mathematical domain to other domains.

I’m not sure what you mean by this and I wonder if you could spell it out a bit in terms of the following example:

I put a pot of water on a gas stove and turn up the heat. Why does the water boil? (in other words, what ‘causes’ the water to boil)?


(Geoffrey Edwards) #40

Putting a pot of water to. boil

We understand this as a phase change from one state of matter to another, each of which is associated with its own statistical laws (mathematics). In the liquid state, molecules are constrained to move in particular ways, whereas in gases their movements are unconstrained. A phase change occurs when the collection of molecules is transformed from one state to the other.

The process of applying heat to a liquid “causes” its molecules to oscilate more quickly until eventually some begin to break free at the edge, that is, on the top surface - or in pockets inside (which we call bubbles) that then rise to the surface. This is the process we call boiling. If you add salt to the water, the Sodium Iodine molecules interact with the water molecules and change the temperature at which they escape - raising the temperature of the boil. This property and others like it can be harnessed, for example, in cooking. One of the strengths of scientific explanations is that they can have great predictive power.

So to recap, the person, the pot, the stove/fire or what have you, are mapped to a “phase space”, a kind of model, in which certain elements of the situation are intentionally neglected (the emotional state of the person, the type and form of the pot, etc.). Repeated experiments indicate that these factors affect the process of heating/boiling in negligeable ways (although the emotional state of the person may clearly affect the degree of heat applied and when the heat is turned off!). The phase space in turn is mapped to a set of mathematical formalisms describing the statistics of the molecules. The scientific explanation offers a kind of recipe or method for successful application of the procedure. In this sense it is predictive - not merely, I might add, because of any correlations that might be observed. The explanation is much more powerful that would be a mere correlation.

Please note that I am not entirely happy with the phrasing of your question… what “causes” the water to boil? Causation is a tricky concept, even though it is widely used, especially in the scientific domain, but not only there. Causation implies something unequivocal - a thing either does or it doesn’t cause something else. I don’t believe science deals with absolutes, ever :slight_smile: It’s why I also have problems with the word “proof”. In science, things are never “proved”. Sometimes the evidence is so strong that an explanation is considered a de facto proof, but the only true “proofs” are in mathematics. And that is because mathematics is about transforming the same entity into different variations. Mathematics is a game, no a playing with identity. But that’s another story. Causality has also proven to be extremely difficult to capture in logical formalisms. What I have provided is an explanation of why the water boils, and my explanation consists of mapping the context to a model with explanatory power capable of being generalized to a wider range of problems. The explanation is useful because it has predictive power. I make no assertions about causality, however.


(Geoffrey Edwards) #41

On another matter, noting the following passage from Ch. XVIII Mind and Supermind : “Mind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists only as obvious parts and fractions, Mind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as aspects of the whole. For, even when it knows that they are not things in themselves, it is obliged to deal with them as things in themselves ; otherwise, it could not subject them to its own characteristic activity.” This is clearly grounded in then contemporary ideas from gestalt psychology which is still highly relevant today. It suggests that Aurobindo kept abreast of work going on in the sciences in his day.


(Don Salmon) #42

Thanks Geoffrey. I appreciate your very well-written summary of the process.

Assuming I understand what you’ve written, and agreeing with you about leaving out the words “causation” and “proof,” I could rephrase it this way: Subsequent to the application of heat, a process occurs that, currently, in this era of human evolution, is not affected by the individual’s emotional state, and which predictably leads to a change of from liquid state to gaseous state.

Let me ask a follow up question:

Why doesn’t the water turn into a cat when the heat is applied (this is not meant as a frivolous question)?


(Geoffrey Edwards) #43

I am not sure I can argue this one on purely physical grounds. It could be done, but would take too many pages. What I would rather do is back up and draw on philosophical sources, because these people thought about these ideas at the “right” level of abstraction. Physicists took the ideas that were already in the culture, and adopted those that stood up to testing. But they don’t work at such general levels of abstraction. It’s why I could give an answer in purely physical terms, at the quantum level, for example, but it would have to dip into a broad range of rather deep theory, and would require a lot of “set up” to even begin to understand. Hence, for example, Aristotle’s ideas on change are often cited in this context.

In a nutshell, however, if I were to abandon caution, I think the main idea is : that tangible things have forms that tend to persist, they change form only under circumstances where change is necessary, and these transformations are themselves subject to the same constraint, that forms (of transformation) tend to persist or repeat. I am tentatively putting forward this argument, in the spirit of the discussion. This is based on observation, of course, and is consistent with my earlier argument about heating the water. There are counter-examples, but these usually have special properties that explain why they are different. Water is one tangible form, cat is another. If there were a path of transformations leading from one to the other, then you could say cats are transformations of water (I can think of one such path, actually - in evolutionary theory, life came out of the Earth’s oceans, probably involving heating, so there is a rather long chain that links water to cats. But each stage of transformation is motivated by its own necessities.) If you compressed the time scale, you might “see” a volume of water transforming into a cat, and it would still be a scientifically valid argument.

The explanation involved here, aside from the principle enunciated above, would be the chain of transformations, each one a model. Not sure that answers the question though.


(john davis) #44

Isn’t this-kind of-what a metaphor does?

And a model is a metaphor that provides stability. And yet, sometimes, when we scale up or down our models dont work.

Einstein used Riemann’s geometry. Bohr used a different geometry. What happens if we stop arguing the Bohr vs Einstein conflict as if that was the only game in the Cosmos?

Maybe we could take a look at the different geometries that are underneath these incommensurate theories?

And when we map across, what do we leave behind?

And what happens when middle aged men start to become emotionally vulnerable in public spaces when they experience differences that they dont understand?

How do we hold nuanced positions?

And does that cat, as it is being tortured, register affectively? If you were in a room, while the cat was nailed to the board, would you stop it?

Or would you sit back and watch?

And when the cat gets tortured, is that the same thing for you, as heat applied to water?

Our friend, Eric Weiss, once said we should not confuse the ‘physical’ world with the ‘waking’ world.

In other words, what maps across and what doesn’t? Explanation or multiple description?

Perhaps, when we feel we are in opposition, we need to chunk down and chunk slow?


(Geoffrey Edwards) #45

You are right, Johnny, there is a relationship between metaphor and what I am calling explanation. The difference is that explanations involved structures - metaphors may or may not do this. So metaphors are a kind of “general framework”, a superset of explanation, according to the framework I am proposing.

If I understand things correctly, that is precisely what the different approaches to a theory of quantum gravity are trying to do.


(Frederick Dolan) #47

This is my first visit to the forum and I’m not sure I fully know my way around the conversation, but I don’t recognize the philosophical thesis of physicalism in what’s being said here about physicalism, namely that (like materialism) it’s a reductive thesis, as in the claim that mental entities (beliefs, intentions, etc.) are “really” physical entities (e.g. neurological processes). But most versions of physicalism argue that what we call non-physical things supervene on the physical, i.e. that they are global properties of physical constituents (like the face we perceive in the patterns of a dot-matrix image). A physicalist of this sort can say that “everything is physical” without reducing the non-physical to the physical. To say that everything is physical is just to say that a physical duplicate of our world would be a complete duplicate of it, but that doesn’t entail that it would not contain mental or psychological entities.

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of what a physical object is, what it means to say that something (or everything) is physical. To my (limited) knowledge no one has answered that question to everyone’s satisfaction (although there’s no shortage of proposals), which I take it is the main reason why many just want to say that the physical is whatever physics is about as a kind of place-holder.

One indicator of the mysteries involved in the concept of the physical is that it seems to permit the thesis that physicalism entails panpsychism (that all physical entities are conscious). Galen Strawson argues that endorsing this thesis is the best way to get around the “explanatory gap,” the problem of even conceiving how mental entities can be caused by physical entities. Although it may seem odd to say that all physical entities are also conscious entities, it’s not illogical (on physicalism’s account there is at least one kind of physical entity that is also conscious, namely us), and one can then still be a physicalist in the sense of holding that a physical duplicate of this world would be a complete duplicate.

With regard to explanation, perhaps I’m being simple-minded but isn’t at least some of the debate fueled by equivocating on the meaning of “explanation” and “description”? According to Hempel (and I know much has happened since then) the difference between explanation and description is that an explanation tells us not only that something happened (or what happened) but also why it happened, by identifying the causal mechanisms at work. Explanations predict things; descriptions don’t. Of course you can say that an explanation in this sense is “nothing more than” a description of the causal mechanisms, but that doesn’t undermine the substance of what seems to me to be the very useful distinction between description (what happened?) and explanation (why did it happen?).


(Don Salmon) #48

Hi Fred: Great points. I’m impressed with the clarity of your writing, in particular.

I don’t have time to respond at the moment, but you might enjoy my Amazon review of Ed Kelly’s “Beyond Physicalism”:


(Frederick Dolan) #49

Thanks Don, I’ll certainly read your review. I’d also put on the table for this conversation Thomas Nagel’s 2013 Mind and Cosmos, the subtitle of which is Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Among other things Nagel argues that mental phenomena must have been part of reality from the start, that we’re not going to succeed in explaining reason without allowing for teleological explanation, and that in effect human reason is the universe’s way of becoming aware of itself. Of course these are not unfamiliar proposals; what’s interesting are Nagel’s arguments for them and the implications he draws. And the book is short!