Sunday, October 23, 2011

Agentship of the Soul (per the Brahma Sutra)

Rama, who daily receives voluminous correspondence from all of the world, recently brought to my attention something sent to him by an independent scholar in India concerning the nature of the soul as explained in the Brahma Sutra, which has been the subject of considerable exegesis in India as well, such as that by Adi Shankara (788-820 A.D.), who has been called the "St. Thomas Aquinas of Indian thought."

I was particularly struck by the analogy used therein likening the soul to a carpenter and agentship to that carpenter using his tools, as it brought to mind some of the argumentation on the nature of the soul from Augustine and Aquinas that David McGraw reviewed relative to Descartes last November (see his posting "Mind and Body, Medieval and Modern: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas Versus Descartes") that we discussed some months ago. I would be interested in discussing how this might be applied to the position of the (central) ego Smythies describes vis-a-vis the "observer" of visual space. This is a link to some of the summary/commentary:
More exegesis/argumentation has been published in this volume:,+independent+though+it+is+as+regards%22&dq=%22just+as+this+soul,+independent+though+it+is+as+regards%22&cd=1
I have a Xerox of the relevant pages that I could supply.


  1. I straddle the boundary between east and west but am continually amazed to see how few attempts there are attempting to bridge the two; except schrodingers informal writings ( Indians have been writing about this kind of stuff for three millenna , yet its often dismissed as mysticism.( Which may or may not turn out to be true but its at least worth exploring ) The Indian notion of MAYA for example is very similar to Platos cave. I believe bill to be strategically poised to create this bridge - not only because of his incisive intellect but because he approaches these issues with an open mind - he is untainted by the sophistry and hubris that dominates much of academia these days ramachandran

  2. I would like to welcome Rama to our group, and I certainly agree that there is much to be said for more interaction between eastern and western philosophers. At a minimum it involves listening to each other, and getting involved with an honest dialogue; i. e., neither dismissing positions out of hand or dogmatically accepting them as being true. I believe that there is one truth out there but that it is arrogant to just assert that one has found it. One question is this. Western philosophy in metaphysics is not one monolithic position; i.e. it includes several quite different mutually incompatible positions, such as the many versions of dualism, idealism and materialism. Does eastern philosophy include as many internal disputes, and if not, how does the predominant position translate out into a corresponding western tradition, assuming such a correspondence to exist.

  3. I whole-heartedly second Bob's sentiments and recommendations, and appreciate Rama's expression of confidence in my rather modest command of Western philosophy! The simple answer to Bob's question is, of course, "yes." There are indeed many schools of thought and factions in Indian metaphysics to be sure.

    The Brahma sūtras, to which the text above refers, are one of the three canonical texts of the Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy, and one can get a quick overview of its scope from the Wikipedia entry for it:

    Rama was struck by the sophistication of the arguments presented in this ancient text as it has striking resonances with Western metaphysics, especially the philosophy of mind. It may be that we can recruit the Indian scholar who sent him this material as a contributor to the blog.

    In the meantime I would invite a comparison between the soul as characterized in the Brahma sutra (exemplified by the “carpenter analogy”) with that of the Cartesian soul. This might provide a useful starting point for discussion.

    Any takers?

  4. It would be interesting to know why Adi Shankara, who was the traditional exegete of Brahma Sutra, was called the "St. Thomas Aquinas of Indian thought." Suffice to say for now that he was a leading exponent of "Advaita" ("non-dualism")which, according to the Wikipedia entry for him, "is often called a monistic system of thought." The entry goes on to say that the word "Advaita" itself "essentially refers to the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman). Advaita Vedanta says the one unchanging entity (Brahman) alone exists, and that changing entities do not have absolute existence, much as the ocean's waves have no existence in separation from the ocean."

    Clearly this is a different form of monism than in Western philosophy, though right away I see a resonance between it and the German philosophy of "Ganzheit" ("Totality") from the 1920s and '30s that I have discussed here previously. It also readily recalls the thinking of C.G. Jung (who was influenced by Eastern thought) and his the concept of the Self (with a capital "S") as being related to the God image, as posited in his theory of the psyche (with reference to the collective unconscious).

  5. I am no scholar of Eastern traditions, or Indian philosophy in particular, but maybe to get some discussion going on Bill's points, in the relevant passage from the Brahma Sufra a comparison is made between the relationship of a carpenter and an adze, where a straightforward interpretation would seem to be that the carpenter is the soul and the adze the body, and that the soul is not an agent when not associated (is there a better word here?)with the body in the same way that the carpenter is happier (or something else) without the adze? This is about the best that I can do right now, but if someone wants to take up the dialogue they are more than welcome to.

  6. Hopefully we will have the Indian scholar who sent Rama this extract join us in the near future and she may therefore be helpful in clarifying.

    But in now studying more carefully the analogy of the carpenter using/not using his tools being analogous to the self (soul) and under the condition of agentship, and that in a "state of enlightenment" it becomes apparent that agentship is illusory, the focus really shifts to the nature of the "state of enlightenment" in which this insight occurs. If we take that state to be something had during meditation, then we are very probably talking about an altered state of consciousness, during which both depersonalization and derealization are common, even out-of-body experiences. Such states have been studied scientifically for years, and it suggests to me that the sense of being separate from one's body (including sense organs) and seeming to be part of something much larger or greater is also reported in near death experiences, as Thomas related above.

    Are you reading Thomas?

  7. With respect to Bob's analogy of the carpenter using an adze, I would ask is that similar or different from how he would "use" his senses and mind in the course of his work?

  8. Further to my penultimate comment I should cite "The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience" by the late Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg (1999), both of them M.D.'s. This is a brief (favorable) review that appeared on a Yoga website:

  9. To reply to Bill's question concerning the relation between the Brahma Sufra and my own work, an awful lot depends upon whether there it is also held that the soul has spatial properties. Perhaps someone could find some relevant passages if there are any.The passage concerning the metaphor of the carpenter and the adze, while suggestive, just does not have enough content for me to tell.

  10. I was rather hoping that David McGraw would have chimed in by now with some comments, because he is infinitely more familiar with the metaphysical background underlying the thinking of Descartes on the question of extension (viz. as he was at pains to explain relative to Aquinas and Augustine).

    The language of the Brahma Sutra is evidently partly analogy, partly logic. So I think we can safely say that Bob's question can be tentatively answered negatively, i.e., there seems to be nothing stipulated that the Self/Soul is extensionless.

    Rendering the Sanscrit as "agentship" (or agency) must really be the key, because it implies ontological relations, and apparently causal ones, between reality and illusion that are mediated by the self, which is invariantly real.

    This revolves around the Indian notion of "maya," which essentially maintains that what we ordinarily call reality is on the order of an illusion. This is a key concept in their metaphysics, as Rama has indicated. The problem is that "maya" does not exactly translate as illusion! I heartily recommend that everyone read the Wikipedia entry on it:

    What intrigues me is that none of this is conceptualized in terms of anything like Will, unlike Western metaphysics, but rather according to criteria of reality/illusion. This comes back to my suggestion that perhaps we are in error if we think of reality in black and white terms, that either something is real or not real, whereas ontologically, there may be varying degrees of reality or illusion (oxymoron as that sounds, if one construes "ontology" as being of or the study of reality!)

    I have invited the Indian scholar to join the discussion, so hopefully we may hear from her.

  11. Indian traditional system of Vedanta suggests practical ways for finding your oneness with the ultimate reality ,viz, Consciousness and says that , your individualized consciousness is non different from ultimate consciousness.

    The “i” ness in you is unconditional and ultimate. Your impression, however much strong it may be that you are a limited being is just an impression and it does not taint the reality that you are the ultimate.

    While the consciousness lights up your body, your impression is “I am this Conscious body”. When you are aware of your mind or intellect, you maintain the impression “I am the conscious personality”.

    Whereas you are the ultimate reality without doubt,your thinking capacity is so much vested in these impressions that while being in the body you find it difficult to understand the ultimate “I” ness in you.
    The scriptures suggest a practical method. As the “i” ness in you is ultimate I, i.e. the ultimate subject, objectify whatever can be objectified in your thinking (cognizing the object along with its affective component-this is my suggestion) and arrive at the consciousness which is the ultimate subject.
    The said aphorism is an attempt to objectify whatever can be objectified ,in the individualized consciousness.
    This consciousness which assumes that it is body, mind etc is not in its ultimate form. This will be understood when body mind etc are fully objectified, when the consciousness shines in its original form. This consciousness is not tainted by the use of body mind etc just as the carpenter as a person is not tainted by the tools he uses and can exist as a person with or without tools.
    This, infact,will be further clarified and understood when we analyze the other aphorism which is more relevant to neuroscience.
    Thanking you. Rajeswari

  12. Thank you for this explanation, Rajeswari, and welcome to the blog!

    In talking some with Rama I think it is important for our purposes here to define what is meant by certain terms in vedantic metaphysics. For example, "consciousness" as an English word has a number of (slightly) different meanings. By its use in the Brahma Sutra does it mean "knowing"/"knowledge"? "Awareness"? "Perceiving"? Perhaps you could provide the Sanscrit word that has been translated as "consciousness" so that we will know it.

    So we need to be clear in understanding the definitions of basic terms in trying to determine how well (or not) vendantic concepts can be connected with Western metaphysics, especially as to the different meanings of "seeing," given the topic of our blog.

  13. I would also like to welcome Rajeswari to the blog. One question I have for her, is the same one that I was asking Bill, what is the position of the Vedanta with respect to the issue of spatial properties of the soul? That is,is it conceived as being spatially extended, and if so what is its topology and metric structure, or is it at least conceived as having a spatial location; e. g. in the brain of the body?

  14. Robert French is asking about spatial properties of the soul. I presume that he is referring to pure consciousness by the word soul.According to Advaita Vedanta of Sankara, Brahman or pure consciousness is devoid of any attributes.It is attributeless.If Brahman is considered as having attributes then it would become limited, but pure consciousness is beyond any limitation according to Advaita Vedanta

  15. Thank you, Rajeswari. Rama and I would like to know what is meant by "pure consciousness." How can there be consciousness without it being a consciousness "of" something? This is why I was asking about what Sanscrit word is being rendered in English as "consciousness," because consciousness as an English word is of fairly recent coinage (probably only a couple of centuries old).

    Bob, superficially this "pure consciousness" does superficially resemble Descartes' res cogitans in ostensibly having no spatial extension.

    1. While looking for Rama's publications, I came across this blog. I am finishing my PhD in visual perception and have interests/background in similar concepts from Indian tradition.

      As far as I see it, pure consciousness, described as 'Purusha' in the Samkhya tradition, differs from the notion of mind/mental attributes that are being studied. It probably is also different from Descartes' res cogitans in that there is no 'cogitation'(thinking) or mentation associated with Purusha.

      Mentation or cogitation is the task of the 'antah-karan'--inner milieu (not exact translation) that comprises of 'aham' (sense of me/self), 'buddhi' (intellect, decision-making faculty), 'manas' (mind, perceptual faculty) and the 'chitta'(no exact translation).

      So, in the ontological context, Purusha is described as pure consciousness, with no object to be conscious of.

      Bhuvanesh Awasthi

    2. Many thanks, Bhuva, and welcome to the blog!

      I suggested to Rajeswari that we look very carefully at the words that are being rendered as "consciousness," because consciousness is not a very old word, and is used in different ways. So it may be that we need some better synonyms or phrases to translate it adequately for our purposes here.

      Somehow "consciousness" as a noun was derived from the earlier phrase "to be conscious of" (something). How consciousness came to be separated from its relationship to an object (or thought) is an etymological mystery we need to examine, especially in the context of Purusha which, on the face of it, sounds like a paradox (like the "sound of one hand clapping," as it were).

      So exactly how to describe "pure consciousness" seems the first order of business! How can there be consciousness without it having any content? That seems very paradoxical.

      Can we relate consciousness to qualia, for example?

    3. Just a postscript to my remarks above to provide the etymology of "conscious" given in OED, though it is sometimes just given as "to know together":

      " < classical Latin 'conscius' sharing knowledge, privy, privy to a crime or plot, (frequently with the dative of the reflexive pronoun) inwardly aware, conscious of guilt, having a guilty conscience, guilty ( < con- con- prefix + scīre to know: see science n.) + -ous suffix. Compare Italian conscio that has awareness or knowledge of something (c1336). With the use as noun compare earlier superconscious n. Compare also unconscious adj."

      How does one then derive "pure" consciousness that has no object from that?

  16. Thank you Rajeswari for clarifying this. I think that Bill is right that the position that the soul is non-spatial also has a long history in Western Philosophy as well, not just with Descartes, but as David McGraw has pointed out with earlier scholastic philosophy as well. This does raise issues though concerning how visual perception is dealt with since visual experience, prima facie, appears to be spatial. Do you know if Vedic philosophy has anything particular to say about this?

  17. Can consciousness be conscious of itself? What could be the brain state when subject and object are one and the same?

  18. I think we must beware of linguistic confusion arising from mixing different word senses that create unwanted equivocation and insoluble paradoxes. There is no indication that "pure consciousness" in the Vedantic sense involves consciousness of consciousness, and I think we need to stick closely to what is actually stated or implied by the original Vedantic texts or the traditional glosses on them by Adi Shankara et al.

    Perhaps therefore we need a better definition of Purusha, and whether it is best translated as “pure consciousness,” and what the word actually implies? It may be that someone has already done a philological analysis of the word and thus can save us the trouble. (Anyone want to do a Google search to find out?)

    There is no known brain state in which subject and object are one and the same. For one thing, the representation of the body in the brain and representations of the external world are completely separate regions in the cortex.

    In principle at least, it seems likely that the only way of eliminating the subject-object, self-world dichotomy, would be to somehow deactivate certain brain regions which—somehow—might leave a residual consciousness that no longer contains that division. But that is very speculative (to say the least!)