by Swami Krishnananda
I have received a critique offered on my essay, The Ontological Argument, by Laurence Browne, for which I am grateful.
The History of Philosophy, whether in the East or in the West, has been a search for a relevance which remains to be discovered between Appearance and Reality. My purpose has always been not to enter into futile polemic but to arrive at a conviction that a thing called God must exist, without which certitude life would lose meaning. The technical description of the process of arriving at this certitude attempted by Philosophy is what is generally known as the Ontological Argument, meaning thereby Proof of Being. The part of my essay which the critique has not touched is the beginning paragraph pointing to Plato's doctrine of Ideas or The Idea which acts as the Archetype of everything phenomenal. We need not go here into the further development of this thought of Plato as there being archetypes for everything in the world, something which looks like there being an 'eternal object' for every 'actual occasion' in the language of A.N. Whitehead. The critique mentions here that the idea of a thing does not mean that the thing indicated by the idea does really exist; that is to say, there need not be an objective existence corresponding to the idea of a thing. Without going further into this subject, I would elicit an answer from the learned critic to Plato's doctrine of the Idea, which I believe Whitehead deeply appreciates, holding the opinion that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. I would be edified if some light is thrown on this issue.
It was Acharya Sankara in India who formulated the argument for an Ontological Being in his statement that no one can deny one's own self or one's own existence. This existence has also to be a conscious existence, because unconscious existence cannot be conceived. In Sankara's words, this point is expressed as Satta eva cha bodho, bodha eva cha satta – existence is consciousness and consciousness is existence. From the certitude of the existence of one's own self, the certitude of the existence of anything else also follows, as is corroborated by Immanual Kant in his chapter on the 'Refutation of Idealism'.
As far as my reference to Rene Descartes is concerned, it is just to say that his point is not much different from Sankara's dictum that the 'I' exists, and it cannot be denied, because to deny the 'I', another 'I' would be required, a process which may lead to infinite regress. I do not know if there is any jump, as the critique points out, when it is discovered that the self is existence which is conscious. I do not also know if there is any objection to finding a common ground between Sankara's position as regards self and Kant's asseveration of a Transcendental Apperception, whatever meaning one would like to associate with Kant's presuppositions. The finitude of one's own self cannot rest quiet without finding comfort in a 'more than itself'. The finite has necessarily to make an automatic reference to a non-finite, which is generally designated as the Infinite. Human aspiration is never complete in its fulfilment without absolute fulfilment.That the existence of an idea does not necessarily indicate the existence of the thing to which the idea seems to refer, is a point to consider. Well, let us go further.
We may cite one sutra from the great Yoga Text, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, from its third chapter, which reads as 'Bahir akalpita vrittih mahavideha, tatah prakasavaranakshayah'. The suggested meaning of this Sutra is that the empirical thought, which we may consider as a psychological function that artificially relates itself to an object outside is one thing, and the thought precedent to this empirical thought which may be regarded as the way in which Cosmic Thought is inseparably related to the psychological thought, is another thing. The point is that an individualised psychological thought cannot even function as it is distanced from its object by the intervention of space and time, unless at the back of it, integrally related, there is a Thought which does not require an object outside it, as this Thought is inseparable from its object. Here Thought is Being. The sutra makes out that this Metaphysical Thought, when deeply meditated upon, leads to the liberation of the finite thought from getting entangled in space and time and absorbs it into the Overself, which we may consider as the Transcendental Thought, or what we may say in the language of religious devotion, God-Thought – not God's thought but God Himself as the Thought. This marvellous discovery, I believe, is what Aristotle intends when he makes out that God is Thought thinking Itself, the Prime mover of the world. Thinkers like Sir James Jeans have dared to say that God is just thought, may be a mathematical thought. To Sir Arthur Eddington, 'The stuff of the world is consciousness.'
This is to say that it need not always be true that the idea does not have any relation to the thing of which it is the idea. Else, Acharya Sankara and Plato would be misled in their doctrines, and even Kant would be wrong if he does not set aside his critical phenomenal shackles with no reference to the noumenon; because a thing that is considered phenomenal cannot intelligibly exist without reference to something which is not phenomenal.
Thank you very much for your response to my critique. As you say, the purpose is not to get into debate, so I'll just make one or two points.
Firstly, concerning Plato. Within Western philosophy Plato was the first real metaphysician. So powerful and influential was his system through the ages that Whitehead said – and no-one disagreed with him – that European philosphy had been a series of footnotes to Plato. As a result of creating his realm of Ideas and Forms, Plato became the first philosopher to systematically conceptualise the direct experience of both goodness and truth. After Plato goodness became an ethical ideal and truth the correctness of an intellectual judgment. Here we have the beginnings of the profound difference in the understanding of the nature of truth between the East (direct experience of Satchitanand) and the West (the correctness of an intellectual judgment). The same difference can be seen in Shankara's understanding of 'I' and Descartes' understanding of 'I': chalk and cheese as we say!
Whitehead himself tried to get away from the conceptualisation of experience – and from Plato's overwhelming influence – and so developed his system of 'process philosophy' which is worth looking into. For example, Whitehead regarded space time and matter as abstractions, and in his view to consider them to be real would be to fall into the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness' since the conceptualisations of space, time and matter are mental constructs and are not the result of direct perception.
Because truth, in the West, became the correctness of an intellectual judgment, and later, with the scientific method, something for which we must have physical evidence, the traditional proofs of God, such as the Ontological and Cosmological Proofs, are not taken seriously in the West as proof that God exists. The proofs, however, can be used to assist those who already have a sense that there is a Supreme Being and want to become firm in their understanding. I myself found the Cosmological Proof (the idea of a First Cause) a great help to me when I was younger. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I have read on the Ontological Proof comes from Simone Weil: "The Ontological Proof is mysterious because it does not address itself to intelligence, but to love."
Perhaps the greatest Ontological Proof is our own experience of the inner self, which is the fount of bliss and warmth in our hearts. Ontology means being, and where else but in our own being can we experience its reality and depth? Also, the very existence of the saints and sages, who were and are filled with Sat, Chit and Anand, is a tremendous Ontological Proof, and one that must go hand in hand with our own inner experience. Only hints and indications can come from philosophy and reason, never proof in the modern sense.
A little more on Kant. In the early 19th Century the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher took Kant's morally independent self (the phenomenonal self, cut off from noumenon) and asserted that it was able to experience its own transcendence through a "feeling of absolute dependence." Schleiermacher thus shifted the defense of religion from reason (the Proofs etc) to direct experiece. According to Louis Dupre (in 'Transcendent Selfhood'), "Scleiermacher's feeling of dependence is more than a merely subjective experience which would fall under the objections of Kant's critique. It is a total consciousness which is both objective and subjective. Indeed it is man's most profound awareness of his own nature... The feeling of absolute dependence... reveals the transcendent ground of consciousness, the point in which consciousness is both itself and more than itself."
So Schleiermacher, both theologically and philosophically, established the connection between the phenomenon and the noumenon, which Kant had denied. He made the shift from thought to feeling, from the head to the heart, and that is the shift that has to be made by each person who wants proof that God exists. As Simone Weil said, "The Ontological Proof is mysterious because it does not address itself to intelligence, but to love." And love springs from the heart, not the head. (The Simone weil quote is taken from Iris Murdoch's "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" which has a very comprehensive chapter on the Ontological Proof.)
There is a very nice quote from the science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, which you might enjoy: "Logic is an organised way of going wrong with confidence." I really like that one!