On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.


Synopsis of the 3/1/18 YHouse Luncheon Talk at IAS

Presenters: Catherine Prueitt (George Mason University) and Piet Hut (Institute for Advanced Study)

Title: Beyond or Not Beyond Abstract: “Cat and Piet will continue an ongoing dialogue they started a few weeks ago at Columbia about the notion of exploring the notion of beyond in theory and experiment, in science and contemplation, as well as in daily life. Cat, a philosopher, and Piet, an astrophysicist, share a deep and burning interest in the question of how humans construct and experience the world they live in and themselves who live in it.”

Present:  Piet Hut, Catherine Prueitt, Olaf Witkowski, Yuko Ishihara, Steven Tainer, Michael Solomon

Piet opened the discussion stating that they will consider Non-duality as a continuation of the discussion referred to above in their abstract. (It would be helpful to read Piet’s blog outlining that meeting now by clicking on the blue link in the abstract above.) 

(Non-duality refers to the transcendental state in which all seemingly opposites or multiples disappear. This negates the duality of subject/object, Yin/Yang, God/Man, physical/spiritual, mind/body, etc. MJS
Importantly, nonduality doesn’t leave a unity behind. It doesn’t resolve into anything. A unity would still be dualistic in that the idea of one depends on the idea of many. CEP)

     Piet wondered where Non-duality should fit in academics. Is it in comparative religion? But religion is a label and therefore doesn’t fit very well.  Academics should avoid “going native”. They should not believe, but hold at arm’s length.  If you are a fervent believer, you cannot study objectively. It is better to neither believe nor disbelieve.
     Cat thinks of herself as a philosopher, perhaps within comparative religion studies. But philosophy is embodied understanding and cannot be considered as purely abstract.  Non-duality requires suspending judgment. It was used in classical India as a way to determine truth. Dharmakīrti, an influential Buddhist thinker in the 6th or 7th century in southern India, argues that causality is the mark of what is real.  But ultimately causality is part of the physical world, not ultimate reality. When confronted with that seeming contradiction, he says, “Let it be just like that.”  Reality is what provides subject and object the capacity to appear. Non-duality is where philosophy takes us but where we cannot reach. Some things don’t fit categories, but still tell us how reality is shaped more broadly.
     Piet felt that in the days of Dharmakīrti and of Abhinavagupta (a later Hindu philosopher) most people had the experience of non-duality. 
     Steven asked if that was cultural at that time?
     Piet said there were no strict divides between science and meditation then. Dharmakīrti describes Yogic perception.  One can go from conceptual to non-conceptual reality through meditation. He described it as like a hallucination – like pining for a loved one so much that you see the lost love.
     In answer to Steven’s question, Cat said Dharmakīrti is dated now as late 6th century, but the more standard dating is 7th century (600 CE). He did not think highly of his contemporaries and they hated him.
     Steven said while many consider Buddhism as a single entity, there are many Buddhist practices, not one.  The Buddhist emphasis previously was to keep precepts of conduct. It was not good to argue with others. It was better to be non-contentious. But Dharmakīrti was not like that at all. If you argued, you were breaking Buddhist tradition. There was some attempt to defend Buddhist thought from Hindu thought.  The aim was to advance progress towards understanding. The idea was to find some common ground and build understanding from that.
     Michael asked the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual? 
     Cat explained that conceptual refers to one thing distributed over many things. i.e. a chair is a single chair, but shares a common aspect with all or many chairs.  Reality is Non-conceptual.  Reality is not ontologically contradictory because it does not make sense for something to be both one and many at the same time in the same way. That is how we recognize that there is something to reality that is very different from how we ordinarily perceive the world. Cat later clarified that, for Dharmakīrti, there are two types of awareness, conceptual and non-conceptual. Something conceptual is never perceived as such, but is constructed for practical purposes by ignoring the differences between particular things. For example, even though every particular thing that we could call a book is different from everything else, we treat many “books” as being instances of the universal category “book.” We do this because it would be impossible to act in a world of pure particulars; we would never be able to formulate goals or identify the objects that could satisfy our goals without using concepts. In contrast, in a non-conceptual awareness, we don’t equate one thing with another. We don’t select out any content as being the same as something we’ve perceived before. In this sense, a momentary awareness of the particulars appearing within our perceptual field is non-conceptual. As soon as we categorize these particulars as being not different from others, that awareness becomes conceptual. Awareness always begins as non-conceptual and becomes conceptual as we exclude everything that doesn’t help us reach our goals. 
     Olaf asked why is knowledge non-conceptual?
     Cat answered what we know is always a concept. For many traditions that build on Dharmakīrti’s theories, but not for Dharmakīrti himself, subject and object are conceptual. That is a reality, but is ultimately not reality. Thinking we have a constant self is not reality, but is what leads to suffering in samsara.
     Yuko asked, What is non-duality?
     Cat agreed this gets complicated. In fact, she is going to attend a workshop at Berkley on just this question.  Non-duality is what remains after you vigorously apply this “one or many” question. If you find it is ultimately illogical – something cannot be one and many at the same time – then you’ve reached ultimate reality. Consciousness is what comes from both duality and non-duality.  A chariot is made of many parts. So, there is really no chariot, only assembled parts. Then the parts are made of something else.  When you have cognition, you have subjective and objective reality.  Cognition seems to be two things, but is also one thing. So, the single moment of cognition is nothing but the subject and object put together. Since it would be one and two at the same time, it’s not ultimately real.
     Piet offered that the One and Many is like the Particular and General. The chariot is the whole or the parts. 
     Cat said to identify something as a chariot relies on the universal “chariot”.
     For Piet looking at Husserl showed him that trying to talk about objects we use labels. But we are trying to see beyond the labels. He used the metaphor of a Movie. How would you convince someone who has never seen a movie, who enters the theater and sees a room and people on the screen, that the image is not reality but is a movie? (Sound like the Matrix?)
     Olaf noted in lucid dreaming there are techniques to know you are in the dream. Do you have that in Piet’s movie?
     Piet said that doesn’t matter.  If you fall into the movie and forget you are an observer, then causality as it appears in the movie (for example if someone turns the light on in the theater it may seem like that happened in the movie) but the causality is in the projector.  In Buddhism, there is ultimately No projector.
     Cat: For Dharmakīrti when you are in the movie you know because all in the movie is causally efficacious for you.  That is how we determine causality within the framework.  Dharmakīrti describes consciousness as pure luminosity.  Abhinavagupta, a later Hindu thinker, refers to Dharmakīrti but says the capacity of a spectator to recognize he is in a movie is enlightenment. In classical Sanskrit aesthetic theory, rasas are essential emotions and consciousness is mirrored by an emotional capacity.  In art we can enjoy emotions outside our own subjectivity. In watching the movie Titanic we get the universal emotion of loss. That is how we tap in to what is beyond limited subject/object or self/other duality. Where is that emotion?  Not just in you or in the character but somewhere deeper.  
     Yuko: are specific emotions required?
     Cat: Yes, there are eight specific emotions described.
     Michael:  This still seems like boxes within boxes or Russian dolls.  We go from one level to a meta-level and just as in Goedel’s theorem there are elements that cannot be either proven true nor false, particularly when they are self-referential. How does this differ from first cause or other concepts of deity?
     Steven answered that consciousness is perceivable. For a Buddhist it makes no sense to ask what came before the first thing. A Hindu would ask what capacity allowed there to be causality in the first place? For certain Hindus, that is Shiva. For the Buddhist, samsara is where we suffer because we cannot get past seeing ourselves as self.  The Buddhist project was not to explain the world. Hindus did try to do that.
     Michael thought that Buddhist thought involved the union of logically contradictory aspects of reality.  Tolerating the limits of logic seemed part of Buddhist thought.
     Cat denied that. Logic is still important.
     Steven outlined that this practice of using Koans may be part of the four Tibetan Buddhist schools, but these exercises are only tools or methods for reaching enlightenment.  In Zen tradition, if one practices meditation long enough to achieve a state of having a non-distracted mind – a state in which we are not concentrating on all the many thoughts and feelings that pop in and out of our awareness ordinarily – but a state in which we can allow the momentary awareness to pass by without grasping, and then that state of mind is confronted with something that it cannot process, then that state is shattered. That shattering may allow recognition that this state is not ultimate.  Ultimately, there is No Thing or Place.
     Michael thanked Steven for an elegant depiction, but still felt there was an element of Faith required to perform that practice in expectation that enlightenment is possible.
     Cat said that Faith is not blind obedience to any promise or text or dogma, but rather is a confidence that understanding is possible.
     Piet referred to a paper by Max Plank on Faith in Physics. Just as in these ancient traditions, Plank wrote that physics relies on Logic and Doubt, but also on trust in a larger community. Progress in understanding requires suspending judgment as new information becomes available, and on generations of others investigating and learning from past investigators.   
     Steven further described the three Jewels of Buddhist thought: Buddha, the teacher (yellow jewel); Dharma, the teaching (blue jewel); and Sangha, the community (red jewel).
     Piet explained the Non-duality is freedom from identification. It is described as waking from the dream. In his metaphor, it is stepping outside the movie.
     Conventional reality has causality and causality defines conventional reality. Understanding this limited reality has two parts: 1) recognizing reality for yourself, 2) recognizing reality for others.
For Dharmakīrti, all our concepts are erroneous. Piet suggested as an example, what was the cause of the Black Death plague?  Whether the cause is from a germ or from a spirit doesn’t matter. People ignore everything that does not fit and what remains is the concept. Then the concept is efficacious at least temporarily, but only a reflection of ultimate reality.
     Yuko was asked what non-duality is for Dogen (a 13th century Japanese Zen Buddhist) or for Nishida (a 20th century Japanese phenomenologist). For Nishida, Non-duality is Absolute Nothingness.  That is not saying there is unity, but negating duality.  Absolute nothingness is explanatory for Nishida and explains Absolute Contradictory Self Identity. Things are not only in contradiction, but that is part of the Unity. Cat drew a parallel to Abhinavagupta’s statement that “Even duality is not not possible in absolute reality.”
     We ended our discussion here.
Michael Solomon, MD