[Advaita-l] Whan is a Pot a Pot?
ShankarPll at aol.com
ShankarPll at aol.com
Sun Jan 30 10:20:52 CST 2005
When is a Pot a Pot?
The Vyavaharika Pot:
In this post I should like to explore the subjective reality of our symbolic
vyavaharika pot and by analogy that the perception of all Prakritic objects
is subjective, without explicitly resorting to the conventional Advaitic
epistemological techniques (Adhyasa) i.e. of subject-object and object-subject
Why does the perception of the Vyavaharika pot differ between individuals?
At the simplest level we may associate such perceptual differences with
genetic differences or neurological defects. Science itself gives us the clues to
this – it tells us that object-visualisation is not a homogeneous proposition
Each brain, after all, has some hundred million neurons (brain nerve cells),
each of which have up to ten thousand connection points where information
exchange occurs (synapses). The permutations involved are astronomical. (In fact
a scientist may even propose that the definition of the self is contained in
nature of these synaptic interactions).
Does every living creature view this pot in an identical way? Our answer of
course must be unequivocally negative. In additional to the variations
identified above we know that there are some thirty visualisation areas at the back
of a human brain. A neurologist might argue that the precise interaction of
these visualisation areas defines perception as we understand it. After all,
science tells us now that the object visualisation process is not about
retinal imaging (followed by the conveyance of the data to the visual cortex) but
that the process is far more abstruse. To be specific, neurologists suggest
that this process entail transformations into “symbolic representations”.
Further, it is also now commonly held that perceptual beliefs are also
representational. From this it is a short step to say all experience is
representational. Given that representational transformations are subjective this suggests
to me is that the notion of a homogeneous perception of reality is a
If one accepts this then our humble pot may indeed be viewed uniquely by
each individual. And of course we should not limit the exercise to the human
species – creatures with genetically poor eyesight (e.g. an elephant) or
genetically superior eyesight (in relation to the human species) should view our pot
differently. And what about the spatio-textual dynamics of the pot? We
know, for example that there are species of fish that can see millions of
colours. Human beings are limited in their sensory organs.
Let us extend this further. Our universe is a rather large place. Modern
cosmology suggests that up to 50% of all star-systems have planetary formations –
some proportion of which may have life and some proportion of that will be
Intelligent life. The question that we need to raise here concerns the nature
of the visualisation process that optometry evolved under alien conditions.
Specifically how will an alien life-form “image” our pot. I should suggest
that even if we were able to translate such alien optometric perception for
human analysis we should not necessarily be able to perceive the “alien” pot.
Spatio-temporal characteristics of objects, its textures and colours etc may
vary substantially between species. If this to be applied to all objects then
even in the vyavahirika universe our understanding of even basic
epistemological constants may be open to question. Note that this is not to deny its
ontological “reality” at this stage but simply to question whether there is an
objective nature to this “reality” - even in an experiential universe.
All of which still operate at one level but there are many other perceptual
dynamics at work. One of these relates to the fact that emotional connection
or disconnection affects our perception. Some years ago, in the course of a
conversation at work, one of my colleagues expressed her profound abhorrence
for grass i.e. the plant of the Graminae family - beloved of cattle etc. Now
she did not suffer from grass-pollen induced hay-fever but her associated
loathing stemmed from traumatic events in her childhood, in Communist Eastern
Europe, when she was forced to work in the fields. These events had coloured the
perception of the common plant. This was a rational person who had come to
terms with her experiences in every other sense. Why is this relevant? The
point is surely that our “pot” is not simply defined by language context nor by
its spatio-temporal characteristics alone but also by its “emotional history
”– it may be viewed with sadness, or amusement or anger or some other
emotion. (To take this to the extreme, we know from neurologists that damage to the
links from the amygdala to the limbic system lead to a condition in which
there is emotional disconnection - leading to another "strange" reality).
Smelling the Colour of the Pot:
Let us imagine a hypothetical universe where human visualisation was
monochromatic. In such circumstances we could not conceive of colour, except in the
abstract. Does that mean the human experience in this monochromatic universe
is less real? In fact in such a universe the likelihood would be that colour
visualisation would be treated as a defect.
Now consider the hypothetical circumstance in which the human brain has been
re-engineered with synesthetic qualities. (The condition synesthesia is one
where the sufferer mixes up the senses so that, for example, the colour red
is C Sharp and so forth). Professor Ramachandran suggests that number-colour
synesthesia occurs because the area of the brain where visual graphemes of
numbers are represented is proximate to the area colours are analysed. The
propinquity increases the possibility of mix-up). Our hypothetical genetic
experiment with a “super brain” in which we deliberately cross-wire sensory areas
would lead to circumstances in which we could smell sights, touch sounds and
so forth. (Remember theoretically we could have sorts of sensory
permutations). Our pot then could, under specific conditions, have the texture and taste
of a red and the smell of C sharp! Is this enhanced synesthetic reality more
My argument would be that these hypothetical universes are not illusory,
they have a cognitive “reality” so that they are not unreal (asat) and nor can
they cannot be reduced to shunya. Indeed the epistemic connection between
this cognitive reality and externality is relevant to investigate. The answers,
it seems to me, lie in the bounds of mithya.
The other point to be made is that is we are not far off the day when it
will be possible to genetically alter a human brain such that these “defects”
are deliberately in-built. If we take the hypothetical situation where, in
some distant future, the human race consists of persons with such altered organs
their reality would be different from “ours”. (By the way we probably need
to consider the “reality” of humanness - since nine out of every ten cells
in the human body are either bacterial or viral – we are, as some one once
put it, 90% alien!)
Mistaking the Pot for a Hat:
In an asylum the sane man is abnormal.
So if we extend the case to neurological “defects” the range of “abnormal”
views of reality increase exponentially. To illustrate, consider the case
study from the title of Oliver Sachs’s “The Man who mistook his wife for a
Dr P, was a musician and painter of distinction and a teacher but develops
the condition visual agnosia. Dr P, Professor Sachs informs us, was unable to
see faces and saw faces where there were none to see. This led to Magoo-like
adventures - he would pat fire hydrants and parking meters in the streets
and enter into conversations with door knobs. He could not even distinguish his
foot from his shoe. His inability to recognise topological features
manifested itself in the incident that titled Sach’s book. The specific circumstances
of which were that Sachs shows his patient a cover of a copy of the National
Geographic with pictures of an unbroken expanse of sand dunes and asks him
to describe its physiognomy:
“What do you see here, I asked?
“ I see a river”, he said. “And a little guest-house with its terrace on
the water. People are dining out on the terrace. I see coloured parasols here
“I must have looked aghast, but he seemed to think he had done rather well.
There was a hint of a smile on his face. He also appeared to have decided
that the examination was over, and started to look for his hat. He reached out
his hand, and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to put it
on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if she
was used to such things”. P.9-10, Sachs, “The man who mistook his wife for a
Hat”(1985), Picador Press.
The case of Christina (“the disembodied lady”) from the same book is also
relevant. This was a lady who could not conceive of her body – she had lost
her “body-ego” as a result of sensory neuritis (of the spinal and cranial
Neurological defect’s aside, strange perceptual traits are applicable to the
highly intelligent but “neurologically normal”. Thus, for example, extreme
absent-mindedness - Einstein (forgetting where he lived) or Hilbert (not
realising what he had for breakfast over the many years) or Von Neumann (who did
not know where his kitchen was) and so forth.
The point of all this is that realities are subjective in nature, and
therefore one can talk about the pliability of experiential reality. Where parts of
the brain are damaged they can create “strange” realities and the situation
according to Sachs is equally true of neurological “excesses”. To use a
systems perspective on this, one could say that these situations are
non-equilibrating – i.e. there is a fundamental lack of balance in the organic
structure. Excess growth of one area in the brain is at the cost of non-development
However, if we extend the logic to broadly equilibrating examples where
there is over-development of lobal functionality (frontal, temporal, parietal or
occipital) the consequence may be equally strange “realities”. The
apocryphal (?) story of the explanation John Von Neuman, one of the great figures of
twentieth century mathematics, provided of his car crash at the infamous “Von
Neuman corner” in Princeton comes to mind:
“ I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in
orderly fashion at 6o miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path.
Boom!” – The legend of John Von Neumann (P.R Halmos).
If such variation of perception exists within the human species, what
variances can one expect from our hypothetical alien or from a genetically
engineered human brain? For some the Pot is a snake or a rope or even, as per Dr P,
one’s wife! Notwithstanding the fact that Evolutionists might argue that this
is an impossibility, the construction of a line of reasoning that the pot is
only a relative object and that its "relationality" is governed by a host of
variables (including that of the parochial definition of human neurological “
normality”) has some legitimacy.
The Mithya pot
There may be a valid argument to suggest that all humans suffer from these “
defects” and that, in the end, it is only a matter of degree that separates
the strange from the norm. If this is the case then there is a sense in which
Vyavaharika merges with Pratibhasika.
One can deny the “existence” of the pot but I do not see how you can deny
the existence of its underlying substratum - (i.e. I personally don’t
understand how the pot could be reduced to Shunya) but it seems to me that its common
definition only relates to a specific neurological state. Perhaps one could
argue that a greater “mithya" reality is an aggregate of all vyavaharika “
realities” and that a hypothetical intellectual ability to aggregate (and
dis-aggregate) the plurality is another way of expressing the state of infinite
that we commonly refer to as Samadhi.
It is at the extremes of hypothesis that we can explore the boundaries of
vyavaharika Before we do this let us briefly describe the Hindu concept of
cosmic time: 1 human year = 360 days; 1 human year = 1 day in the life of Deva’s;
366 Deva days = 1 Deva year; 12,000 = 1 Chatur Yuga; 1000 Chatur yuga’s = 1
day of Brahma (and similar amount for each night); 360 days and nights = 1
year of Brahma. Brahma lives for 100 of His years, after which He sleeps for a
similar amount of time. In total we are talking of several billion years.
Thus the universe has continual existence – the waking state and sleeping state
having been interspersed in this continuum for all eternity.
This for me intuitively corresponds to Jagrat, Swapna and Susupati states.
(Though I do not remember any specific Puranas referring to Brahma’s Swapna).
Thus, presumably if a transcendent mind is taken back, through yogic
practice, to a state before any specific beginning (into a Susupati state) such a
mind conceives a state of apparent nothing. However, perhaps if the mind is
taken back further (into the previous Jagrat) it sees a state of apparent
consciousness and so on. Logic then suggests that this is a part of a continuum
superimposed on an eternal consciousness with Turiya enveloping all the states.
(By the way, modern medical research tells us that the” natural” state, as
it were, is sleep. The waking state is brought forth by a bio-chemical
reaction in the hypothalamus. Thus sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) may
be attributed to damage/ defect to the hypothalamus).
The Akshayapatra of Pots:
“The solution to the problem of the self won't be a straightforward
empirical one. It may instead require a radical shift in perspective, the sort of
thing that Einstein did when he rejected the assumption that things can move at
arbitrarily high velocities. When we finally achieve such a shift in
perspective, we may be in for a big surprise and find that the answer was staring at
us all along… but there are curious parallels between this idea and the Hindu
philosophical view that there is no essential difference between self and
others or that the self is an illusion”. V.S Ramachandran, Reith Lectures –
Neuroscience – the New Philosophy.
In modern science as well as human nature causality is king. That human
nature puts causality on a pedestal is not surprising. A fundamental aspect of
human nature appears to be the search for certainty. The evolutionist argues
that it is the survival instinct that propagates the desire for certainty - Re:
Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene etc). But we know from scientific evidence
and common sense that each individual interprets his or her environment
using the recursive patterns in experience as the means of self-validating the
sense-making process to create “certainty”.
However, the arrogance is such that science suggests that evolutionary,
causal processes can explain “everything”. Therein, Dawkin's argues that even
God and spirituality may be reduced to bio-chemical reactions in the brain and
Hawkins that there really is a “theory of everything” in the “visible”
I believe that Truth lies beyond the veil of reductionism. In systemic
terms the scientific temperament tends to perceive the universe as part of a
general equilibrium, which gives science the assurance of certainty.
Paradoxically, however, I feel that that the solutions to the questions that science
addresses will also point to the inadequacy of the partial equilibrium models
(where most of the variables that govern the “reality” are held constant and
unknown) from which the empirical answers are currently procured.
I cannot conclude this post without reference to perhaps the most famous
representation of our pot – that with five holes and a burning lamp inside. Its
holes may be of varying size (and the light that illumes its external objects
may be, prima facie, subject to an interdependency with all its cavities)
but it is the prakasha eternal. And when the question arises of whether one’s
pot is empty or full, the optimist in me says that the pot is always full,
even though it isn’t there!
Aum Namo Shivaya
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