Mind-body reductionism and Indian traditions –S.N.Balagangadhara

1. Consider the everyday phenomenon of sunrise and sunset. We see the movement of the sun on the horizon and, for a very long period of time, people thought that they observed this because that is the way the reality is: the sun moves around the earth. With Galileo Galilei, two things happened. (a) He argued that the earth moves round the sun. (b) On the basis of this theory, he claimed that we are compelled to observe the movement of the sun around the earth. Because of this, a distinction became necessary: the movement of the sun is merely a phenomenon, whereas the movement of the earth is the real truth. What we previously thought as reality became downgraded to a mere appearance and something we did not know until then became the reality underlying this appearance.

Of course, appearance is as much a part of Reality as the essence (or underlying reality, or whatever terminology you feel like using) is. So, we have three notions: appearance, the underlying reality, and the Reality that unites appearance with the underlying reality. (One might as well call them reality1, reality2 and reality3. But one does not do this because of the deep-rooted western metaphysical assumption that there is only one reality. However, since I do not want to quarrel with this assumption now, I will make no further remarks on this issue.)

Notice though that this degradation of what was once thought of as reality to appearance is acceptable (and possible) because Galileo proves that one is compelled to observe the movement of the sun on the horizon precisely because of the motion of earth around the sun. That is, he shows that the movement of the sun is a necessary appearance.

2. Consider now another everyday phenomenon: human beings are intentional. That is, each one of us experiences oneself as a being that wishes, dreams, hopes, desires, fears, sets up projects, pursues ambitions, etc. In short, it is our experience that we are intentional agents. All of Semitic theology, most of western philosophy and psychology and all of our commonsense assume the truth of this experience. This, if you like, is the reality that Homo Erectus Erectus is. This is what we experience and we experience this, we believe, because it is the reality.

3. Some have found it fit to challenge this. Mostly, within the western intellectual traditions, it is called ‘reductionism’. Reductionism (Mind-body reductionism, as it is called) claims the following: every set of claims about the mind can, in principle, be reduced to another set of claims about brain-events. From this claim, they believe that it is possible to show that there cannot be such an entity called ‘mind’. (I want to leave aside what they mean by ‘reduction’ not only because it has a technical meaning in the literature but also because it is not relevant for the purposes of illustration. The same applies to the different varieties of reductionism and the complexity of the arguments.)

Philosophical reductionism merely tells me that I am wrong (and hallucinate) each time I experience ‘myself’ and feel ‘my’ frustrations, ambitions, projects, etc as ‘mine’. Even where I accept that this reductionistic claim is true, there my experience does not change: I continue to experience whatever I experienced before and this explanation does not transform my experience. By reading their tracts, or writing their articles, one does not stop dreaming, or hoping, or desiring, or acting as moral agents. Philosophical reductionism merely tells me that the whole of mankind is deluded without having a hypothesis about why, if we are under the illusion that we are intentional creatures, we are compelled to live with this illusion, where it comes from, how it reproduces itself, how to get rid of them and so on. These theories blandly assure us that we are all deluded, and no more than that.

None would have taken Galileo’s theory seriously, if we had blandly assured us that all of us are deluded in observing the motion of sun on the horizon. The same with respect to these reductionist theories. There is no reason to take them seriously in their present form.

4. What do they have to do, if they have to be taken seriously? They have to tell us not merely where this illusion of being an intentional creature and a moral agent comes from but, more importantly, whether and how we can be rid of this illusion. This is the requirement for any scientific theory regarding this issue. However, one point is worth noting at this stage: because being an intentional creature (i.e. a creature which hopes, dreams, desires, etc) is experiential in nature, any explanation that claims the contrary should help us experience the illusory nature of intentionality as well.

5. Here is where the Indian traditions step in: they fulfill precisely this condition. They do not merely tell us where the illusion of being an intentional agent comes from, why they are reproduced, and how I can get rid of them. (I might or might not accept their claims about previous births. As a matter of fact, I do not. But clearly they have tried to answer these questions.), but help you experience its illusionary nature as well. In other words, the Indian traditions ‘save’ my experience and do not deny it. They are scientific, in the best sense of the term. (In the sense I have just outlined.)

6. Because of this, much like Galileo’s theory, the reality of being an intentional creature is degraded to the level of appearance. (Or, say, reality1.) That one is not an intentional creature is the underlying reality. (Or, say, reality2.) The ultimate reality (or, reality3) unifies the appearance (reality1) with the underlying reality (reality2).

If one looks at the issue this way, the question ‘how does one know that one has discovered a higher reality?’ answers itself. In exactly the same way we know about these things in scientific endeavors. There is nothing ‘mystical’ or ‘esoteric’ about the Indian traditions. They are the sciences of some aspects of the kind of creatures we human beings are.