bookmark_borderVedanta Philosophy – Part 2

In my last post on the subject I introduced Advaita Vedanta (Hindu) ontology and the three categories of reality: necessary existence (sat), impossible existence (asat), and world-appearance (mithya).

So where does God fit into this ontology? The Western concept of God is not something that can be projected onto the Vedanta system. For now, forget everything you’ve been told about the theistic God. Done? Good, let’s proceed along logical lines and see where we end up. The “prime mover” (Brahman) contains both the material and efficient cause of the universe. But as any critic of the cosmological argument knows, there’s a problem with that idea. Brahman is necessary, i.e., a self-existent pure being. How can such a being cause the universe without itself being subject to movement and change? If the prime mover participated in the chain of causation then it is rational to ask what caused it.

Vedanta’s answer to this classic dilemma is to put a bridge between the unchanging, undifferentiated and infinite pure being and that of the finite contingent world-appearance that emanates from it. So pure being — the infinite ground of all being as Tillich would say — is “unqualified” Brahman (nirguna Brahman) and the bridge between it and the contingent world is “qualified” Brahman (sirguna Brahman). Unqualified Brahman is pure being itself and you can’t say anything about it at all other than it is. Nirguna Brahman has no discernable properties. This is what I referred to in the last post as a logical deduction rather than a personal God. Without being you’ve got nothing; but there’s something or we wouldn’t be here to talk about it so therefore you must have being.

Qualified Brahman does have properties, including femininity, and Hindus call her by many names: Maya, Ishvara, Krishna, God, Kali, and others. When God is anthropomorphized or given properties this is the being to which those properties and traits are assigned. This is the god of the great unwashed masses. The people have a thousand names for her and a thousand ideas about who she is but the true sages know that she does not really exist. She is nonetheless both the material and efficient cause of the universe. This graph illustrates the relationship:

Pure Being (Nirguna Brahman) Universe

Notice that God is a bridge between self-existent pure being and the contingent world. The arrow points toward pure being because Maya gets her power from Pure Being the way Earth gets its power from the Sun. With such power (shakti) Maya creates and sustains the universe. In the Bhagavad Gita in her guise as Krishna, she says “the entire expansive material energy is the womb (yoni) … manifested by me” (14.3). This seems to solve the metaphysical problem of being and becoming.

Maya translates literally as “not this.” That’s because both she and the world-appearance that she creates is an illusion. According to Vedanta everything you see around you isn’t really real. (The plot from the movie “The Matrix” was inspired by this concept and there’s an interesting parallel here to the Christian Gnostics which I’ll explore some other time.) This is hard for Westerners to understand. We know that we have a limited lifespan and we know that everything is contingent and nothing lasts. But why call it an illusion?

To understand why you have to realize that for Vedanta if something is contingent then it ought not to be of ultimate concern. That’s like clinging to a sinking ship. Even more important, since this world depends upon Pure Being to sustain it then there is only the One. In the end, Vedanta is both a pantheism and a monism. Pure Being is all there is, all else is an illusion that depends upon the One to sustain it. Liberation can only be achieved by the deep realization that there is only the One. Further, you are not this world but rather Pure Being Itself. Yogis greet each other with namaste which means “I bow to the divine in you.” That is, behind the illusion there is only one reality and we are that divine reality. That’s pretty heavy stuff so I’ll leave it at that for now and come back to it in a future post.

One last comment for now: Vedanta metaphysics has been influenced heavily by the ancient Greeks. Aristotle in particular gave Shankara (the 8th century founder of the Vedanta school) the vocabulary to speak of Brahman, Maya, Shakti, and the world-appearance in the way I outline it above. But for the ancient Indo-Europeans of the Vedic period the story was different. The ancients knew very well of course that it took both a mother and a father to have a baby. Nothing could be created without the male and female power. Why shouldn’t the whole world be any different? The Mother Goddess (as Maya) contains the power to create (shakti) within her but must couple with the male (Brahman) to fructify and give birth to the cosmos. This is the stuff of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God and I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that the Aristotelian metaphysics was overlaid on a much older creation story. This happened in Judaism as well. The god of Abraham had his consort Ashterah, and King Solomon worshipped them both (1 Kings 11:5). It wasn’t until much later when the Goddess was finally purged from Judaism that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was conjured to explain how a male deity could create the universe.

Teaser for a future post! Ever wonder why at his Sermon on the Mount Jesus would instruct people to pray asking God not to lead us into temptation? Why would God want to lead us astray?

bookmark_borderDawkins Supports Genocide?

There’s a little kerfuffle in the blogosphere recently about Dawkins. No, not the Haggard video. As the LifeSite story reports, and several fringe abortion blogs have picked up and elaborated, Dawkins “advocates eugenics” and “says Nazi regime’s genocidal project ‘may not be bad'”. The article goes on to quote other geneticists in a negative fashion in order to weave a science-fiction horror story of a future ruled by sterilization, eugenics, and genetic engineering.

Of course if you read the letter to the editor that Dawkins wrote to Scotland’s Sunday Herald you won’t find any trace of support for genocide or Nazi-style eugenics. Instead Dawkins muses over whether it’s time to talk about whether parents ought to be able to choose DNA manipulation in order to select for favorable traits such as musical talent.

On their About Us page LifeSite’s first principle of journalism is stated: “Accuracy in content is given high priority. News and information tips from readers are encouraged. Valid corrections are always welcome.” If you want to submit a valid correction send an e-mail to

bookmark_borderVedanta Philosophy

Over time I’d like to say a few things about important points in Vedanta (Hindu) philosophy. This is a neglected area not just among Western philosophers of religion but also among nonbelievers who are naturally curious and interested in what other religions have to say. And hopefully it will be something a little different and maybe even fun.

[Disclaimer: I am not an academic expert! I have practiced yoga for several years now and I’ve read and studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yogavashishta, and the Bhagavad Gita. These and other studies have been under the guidance of a teacher in the context of a disciplined approach toward the attainment of what is called nirvikalpa samadhi or the realization of the Self. Yes, I’m an atheist. But there are plenty of atheists who go to Universalist churches every Sunday.]

Ok let me start with ontology and a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “In the unreal (asatah) there is no duration and in the real (satah) there is no cessation. Knowers of the truth have concluded this by studying the nature of both” (2.16).

The real (sat) is opposite the unreal (asat). In western terms, the real is what we would say is necessary. It cannot not be. The unreal is impossible. It cannot be (e.g., a barren woman’s son). The third order of reality is the contingent, or things which exist but not necessarily. This is called the world-appearance, or in western terms “empirical reality” and it is said to be illusory (mithya).

Vedantism arrives at a definition of the real through a cosmological deduction familiar to philosophers of religion: (1) all beings in the world are contingent and must depend upon another being for their efficient causation; (2) since a being cannot be its own efficient cause nor can there be an infinite array of efficient causes; therefore (3) there must be a prime efficient cause.

This prime efficient cause, or “unmoved mover” in Aristotle’s terminology, is what Hindus call Brahman (sat, reality). It is important to recognize that Brahman is not the God of Abraham and Christianity. Brahman is a deduction from the consideration of the contingency of the world-appearance.

Vedantism places a huge emphasis on rationalism and follows the ancient Greek distrust of the senses. What at first looks like a snake turns out to be a coiled rope. The senses deceive. Because of this and because it exists contingently the world is like an illusion that fools us. The Yoga Sutras define ignorance (avidya) as “mistaking the non-eternal for the eternal” (2.5). In other words, considering the world of empiricism to be real and permanent instead of transitory and temporary.

There is an extremely interesting parallel here to the pre-Socratic Parmenides and his “Way of Truth” poem but I’ll leave that for another time.

bookmark_borderThe Evidential Argument from Mind-Brain Dependence: A Reply to Bilbo

In my response to Victor Reppert’s anti-naturalistic argument from pain, I stated that a more specific fact (consciousness is dependent upon the physical brain) about consciousness is antecedently more likely on naturalism than on theism. Bilbo provided several feedback messages in response to this claim. As I read him, he thinks the argument is no threat to Christian theists. It is apparently his view that mind-brain dependence is at least as probable on Christian theism as on naturalism, since Christian theists believe in specific, sectarian doctrines that raise the probability of mind-brain dependence. Since I think Bilbo is wrong about this, I’ll explain why.

First, here is the logical form of my evidential argument.

Let D = the mind is dependent upon the physical brain.
Let T = classical theism
Let N = metaphysical naturalism

(1) D is known to be true.
(2) T is not much more probable intrinsically than N.
(3) Pr(D/N) > Pr(D/T).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false.

Note the modest nature of this argument. It doesn’t claim that theism is probably false; it merely claims that evidence (D), by itself, favors N over T. This distinction is crucial since it allows for the possibility that there could be other evidence that both favors T and outweighs the evidence for N provided by D. Thus, D should be understood as a prime facie reason for rejecting T.

Let me now turn to some of Bilbo’s specific comments.

Bilbo: “My first problem is that it seems more accurate to say that minds *are* the physical brain on Naturalism (not merely dependent on them). And since this has not been demonstrated, it would beg the question to assert that the postulate that “minds are the physical brain” provides evidence for Naturalism.”

That would indeed beg the question, which is why I never said that! My argument is an inductive argument. It would be illegitimate to state the evidence in such a way that entails the hypothesis to be proved. Therefore, I’ll stick with my original formulation of the premise (“the mind is dependent upon the physical brain”).

Bilbo: “But the Christian views I mentioned also make it antecedently probable that minds will be dependent on the brain. Let’s use the structure of your argument with Christian non-reductive physicalism (hereafter NRP)…”

If theism is improbable given D, then so is Christian theism (or any other more specific belief system that entails theism). Christian theism entails theism; therefore it cannot be more probable than theism. Premise (4) entails that, other evidence held equal, Christian theism is probably false.

I don’t deny the potential relevance of sectarian doctrines to the issue of whether my argument is sound. They could raise Pr(D/T) or lower Pr(D/N). In order to assess the evidential significance of such doctrines, we would need to apply a principle that Draper calls the “weighted average principle” (WAP). Let H represent some Christian doctrine. Then WAP can be represented as follows.

Pr(D/T) = Pr(H/T) x Pr(D/T&H;) + Pr(~H/T) x Pr(D/T&~H)

This formula is an average because Pr(H/T) + Pr(~H/T) = 1. It is not a simple straight average, however, since those two values may not equal 1/2.

Let us consider, then, Christian non-reductive physicalism (CNRP), which Bilbo proposes as a specific doctrine that he believes raises the probability of D given (Christian) theism. Bilbo defines CNRP as “the non-existence of all supernatural beings, except for those that are or were at some point divine (angels, demons, God, etc.).” Bilbo claims that CNRP “entails the nonexistence of disembodied human minds.” Using WAP, we obtain the following.

Pr(D/T) = Pr(CNRP/T) x Pr(D/T&CNRP;) + Pr(~CNRP/T) x Pr(D/T&~CNRP)

In order to reject my evidential argument, therefore, Bilbo would need to show that CNRP raises Pr(D/T) so that it is greater than or equal to Pr(D/N) by using the above formula. Does CNRP do that? I shall leave the question as an exercise for the reader.

(Note: I have borrowed heavily from ideas in another paper by Paul Draper, “More Pain and Pleasure: A Reply to Otte.” I am, of course, responsible for any errors in my post.)

bookmark_borderNew Blog: the Ex-Apologist


This blog is described as being “Dedicated to fair exposition and critique of Christianity and Christian apologetics.” The anonymous author provides the following profile: “I’m currently in the late stages of a PhD program in Philosophy. I was a Christian and an “apologetics nerd” for 15 years, but deconverted at the end of 2005. ” Topics of previous posts include the fine-tuning argument, empirical case for the accuracy of the New Testament, Divine Command Theories, Free Will Defense, kalam cosmological argument, and more!

bookmark_borderJohn Stewart and Richard Dawkins on Ted Haggard

Here is the description of the video as provided at YouTube:

“Jon Stewart analyzes the latest gay surprise as the evangelical, gay-bashing preacher, Pastor Ted, gets caught with his three-year gay lover and supplier of crystal meth. What else is new? For an added bit of spice, there is an earlier clip of Haggard lecturing Richard Dawkins on arrogance. Just too beautiful.”

While Haggard’s behavior (buying crystal meth and a “massage” from a gay prostitute) are clearly hugely embarrassing to evangelical Christians, what is not so clear is whether anything of philosophical significance follows from his behavior. For example, I’ve heard many people refer to Haggard as a “hypocrite,” but the fact is that Haggard never tried to marry a man and he never claimed that homosexuality is morally acceptable. On the contrary, Haggard made it very clear that he considered his behavior morally wrong — and he seemed pretty sincere to me when condemned himself. I conclude that Haggard sincerely believes homosexuality is wrong, but he obviously has some sort of internal struggle with his sexual orientation that prevents him from consistently behaving in accordance with that belief.

What I find much more interesting is the portion of video where Dawkins gets into a somewhat heated exchange with Haggard over science. Haggard actually has the audacity to lecture Dawkins on “intellectual arrogance.” Why? Because Dawkins pointed out the absurdity of Haggard’s claim that evolution is the view that things like eyes and ears came about by “accident.” As Dawkins correctly points out, no evolutionary biologist believes such a thing. That Haggard would make such a statement reveals his utter ignorance of contemporary science. It’s okay if evangelicals like Haggard want to reject evolution (and even urge others to do so), but the least they can do is to actually reject evolution and not some Sunday school strawman version of it.

bookmark_borderResurrecting solidarity

I want to point out a very good review, by Robert Fitch, criticizing a couple of recent and influential books by Michael Lerner and Jim Wallis arguing that the secular Left needs to get more religion. (Thanks to David R. Harding for leading me to the review.)

Having leftish inclinations myself, I’m naturally interested in such debates. And even secularists who do not politically fall on the left might be interested—after all, the left-wing political tradition has been home to much serious thought about how to live our lives together if we do not take our marching orders from Revelation anymore. Fitch’s review, in fact, is one of the better recent writings I have encountered that brings this out, emphasizing how modern social ethics such as that of solidarity differ from traditional religiously-bolstered moralities. All of us with an interest in promoting more secular societies might, I suspect, benefit from a closer engagement with leftist thought, not just to figure out how it has failed, but perhaps to try and reclaim the significant humanist impulse that still has a home in what remains of left-wing circles. There’s a lot more to the Left (the actual Left, and not just what Americans call “liberalism”) beyond stereotypes of Marxist dogmatism or postmodern identity politics.

bookmark_borderMultiple Universes

A couple of my co-bloggers here thought I should say something about John Horgan’s comments on Richard Dawkins vs. Francis Collins in Time, berating Dawkins on his endorsement of multiple universes as a solution to fine-tuning issues.

My first inclination was to say something snide. After all, here are Dawkins and Collins, two non-physicists, arguing cosmology, and Horgan, a science journalist, pontificating on who is right and wrong. A perfect occasion for misunderstandings all around. Since I don’t believe in staying confined to one discipline myself, I’m not going to take too many cheap shots, but there’s clearly a lot that needs setting straight here, particularly since few seem to understand the physical reasons many physicists these days feel compelled to talk about the possibility of a multiverse.

The greatest misunderstanding is the notion that physicists invoke multiple universes just in order to sweep fine-tuning under the carpet. I see a good number of theologians suggesting this, plus scientists like Collins who go digging around for signs of intelligent design in the universe. This is bloody nonsense. Physicists take multiple universes seriously, but not because we necessarily like the idea (I, for one, would be happier avoiding it) or because it would get the intelligent design people off our back. We take it seriously as a possibility, mainly because it’s damn difficult to avoid if you play around with any kind of quantum cosmology. Starting with inflationary cosmologies, we have been playing around with scenarios involving either a vast number of universe-bubbles or huge numbers of at least metastable vacua for some time now. As I said, they’re difficult to avoid—that is, without invoking arbitrary principles for the sole purpose of sweeping multiple universes under the carpet.

Now, if we already have to consider multiple universes as a genuine possibility, it makes good sense to ask what relevance this might have to fine-tuning questions. It is bound to be significant, particularly since our universe is then not necessarily a respresentative sample of the population of universes. Our very presence means our sample is biased (on top of the usual problems with a sample of one).

One reason to worry about multiple universes is the question of how we test such an idea. Theologically-minded people usually suggest that multiple universes are untestable, ad-hoc inventions in comparison which an unobservable God is a positively restrained idea. Not quite. First of all, if multiple universes appear in the context of an overall well-supported theory we can certainly speak of indirectly testing the idea. This is not at all odd in ordinary scientific practice. And even now, when we are far from having cosmological theories that physicists would bet their right arm on, physicists do talk about testing certain multiple-universe theories by observation. Note that I am not saying every multiple universe idea makes contact with experiment in this way. For example, Leonard Susskind defends the string-theoretical “landscape” notion in his The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. It’s a fascinating book, well worth reading, but (as he partially acknowledges) his version of anthropic argument has trouble suggesting more than a tenuous connection with experimental tests. Moreover, if you’re like me, and you’re inclined toward a degree of skepticism concerning string theory, you’ll be extra cautious because the whole discussion takes place in the context of a theory that has not been able to make contact with too many reality tests. (Unlike, say, basic cosmic inflation.)

If you want to find out more, check out my chapters on physics and cosmology in The Ghost in the Universe and Science and Nonbelief. Vic Stenger’s Timeless Reality has a nice, accessible discussion as well.

Now, back to Collins and Dawkins. As I mentioned before, Collins is way out of his depth when talking physics and cosmology. He doesn’t understand what physical cosmologists are doing, and what he says rarely goes beyond philosophical posturing. Dawkins, on the other hand, can be criticized for taking Susskind’s version of anthropic reasoning on board somewhat over-enthusiastically. Still, in reading The God Delusion, my impression was that Dawkins was fully aware that this was outside his area of expertise, and that he wasn’t leaning too heavily on it.