Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The ubiquitous deception, illusion, concealment, and revelation of (‘provisional’) reality?

Art of self-deception Advaita Vedanta
The following passage is by the Brazilian economist, social scientist and writer Eduardo Giannetti [da Fonseca] (b. February 23, 1957) from the Preface to his book, Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception (Bloomsbury, 2000): 

“The analytic philosophy of self-deception is in a way the reverse of the exhortatory therapeutics of self-help [the therapeutic analogue, as it were, of instant gratification]. Nothing could be further from this book than the aim of ‘curing,’ converting or convincing anyone to change. I do not believe in the efficacy of homilies and ‘cures’ in the form of capsules of self-help [Americans have an apparent addiction to such ‘therapies,’ as evidenced in non-fiction best-seller lists], just as I am skeptical of the possibility of any form of ‘regeneration’ by means of moral persuasion. I do, however, believe in the strength of the desire [a desire the person may disavow, refuse to acknowledge, or be unaware of] of every human being to do the best he is capable of with his life [a belief axiomatic to the notion of ‘perfectibility’ in the works of Godwin and Condorcet]; and I believe in the Socratic principle that self-knowledge—a clear and critical vision of the values and beliefs which rule our existence—is an indispensable part of the better life within our reach [This principle, while in itself perhaps not controversial, raises all manner of questions when it comes to the possible means or paths to such self-knowledge.]”

Giannetti’s clear-eyed and sober assessment of the “homilies” and “cures” intrinsic to the “exhortatory therapeutics of self-help” (which rely on wishful thinking, illusions, or short-lived placebo effects?), may have been intimately influenced, at least in part, by the fact that his mother is the Brazilian psychoanalyst and poet, Yone Giannetti da Fonseca. I assume these “homilies and ‘cures’ in the form of capsules of self-help” are faux therapies in stark contrast to “philosophy as therapeia” or philosophical and religious therapies (some of which have significant psychological dimensions, assumptions, or premises), from Stoicism and Buddhism, to Pātañjala Yoga and perhaps even the rather different philosophies of Spinoza and Nietzsche,* as well as the variety of psychoanalytic and other psychological, cognitive or behavioral therapies proffered in today’s world for the relief of either the symptoms and/or causes of predominantly mental anguish or “problems in living” associated with unnecessary suffering of one kind or another. (I don’t believe these therapies are roughly equivalent in their powers of healing to each other, in other words, that it matters little which kind of therapy one chooses. But that is a topic for another day.) These religious, philosophical and psychological therapies are often understood to address that which interferes with or simply thwarts the achievement of moral psychological autonomy (i.e., the minimal conditions of human agency that allow for responsibility and blame, among other things), processes of individuation or self-realization, and the pursuit of self-fulfillment or eudaimonia, all of which might be thought essential to recognizing the intrinsic dignity of the human individual. Be that is it may, I had to smile when I learned from the book’s jacket cover that the publisher recommended—for marketing and retail purposes—cataloguing the book under “self-help/psychology!”
I’d like to further share some speculative reflections prompted by more material from Giannetti’s book, but first we need to introduce the concept of māyā in Hinduism generally and Advaita Vedānta in particular, for which we’ll rely on the entry for same from my study guide on Hinduism (designed for my students when I was teaching): 

māyā: illusion; principle of appearance; power of creation; māyā is the power of concealing, misrepresenting, or distorting the truly and absolutely Real or nirguna Brahman in Advaita Vedānta. Māyā is at the same time the creative power of Īśvara until such time as one experiences the realization of the non-duality of Brahman. It is all that is ‘provisionally real,’ that is, the phenomenal or empirical world we normally use as a touchstone for ‘reality.’ Epistemologically speaking, māyā is equivalent to ignorance (avidyā). We lack the spiritual knowledge or insight necessary for exposing the power of māyā to conceal (āvarana śakti), distort or misrepresent (viksepa śakti) the truly real. Ignorance does not appear to admit of degrees, being rather an all-or-nothing affair: either we ‘know’ Brahman or we do not. Yet if there is progress on the spiritual quest, for example, if achieving identity with Īśvara is better (i.e., more spiritually desirable and thus closer to achieving awareness of Brahman) than being enchanted by phenomenal reality such that one does not admit there is such a thing as the non-empirical (e.g., the crude hedonist caught up in purely sensual pleasures), then it would seem individual ignorance does admit of degrees, albeit ‘relative’ degrees! Īśvara is the Great Magician, and we are seduced by his magical tricks. Provisional reality—the many—is mithyā, neither real (sat), nor unreal (asat) (cf. Parmenides’ doxa). The real is ‘one’ and it is called Brahman, the unreal is the square circle or the hare’s horn, or that which never appears as an objective datum of experience. While neither Abhinavagupta nor Rāmānuja accept Śankara’s conception of māyā, they both find a metaphysical and epistemological role for illusion. The ‘integral monism’ of Kashmir Śaivism criticizes the Advaita distinction between the ‘oneness’ of Brahman and the illusory nature of ‘the many’ as yet another kind of dualism, as all such forms of relative distinction fall within the rubric of māyā. For Abhinavagupta, the one, true reality is manifest as both unity and diversity! Rational discrimination, that is to say, ‘thought forms/constructs,’ ‘discursive representations,’ or ‘mental representations,’ (vikalpa) serve to obscure our capacity for intuitive, direct awareness of pure consciousness, and this, epistemologically speaking, is māyā. Vikalpa is nonetheless indicative of a degree of consciousness, a limited or ‘contracted’ form of consciousness, so that spiritual ignorance likewise admits of degrees: we can be more or less ignorant, just as our illusions are only relative and never absolute: ‘We are not absolutely ignorant of reality for if we were we would be totally unconscious. Spiritual ignorance is always linked with some degree of consciousness’ (Mark S.G. Dyczkowski).

Before discussing intrapersonal deception (self-deception) and interpersonal deception, Giannetti introduces the reader to the role and value of deception and illusion in the natural world, in other words, the fact that “an organism’s use of morphological traits and patterns of behaviour capable of deluding and avoiding the attack and defence systems of other living beings—is a significant part of the arsenal of survival and reproduction in the animal world.” It so happens that deception and illusion—from our unavoidably anthropomorphic perspective— is found in the molecular world and everywhere else upward along the evolutionary scale up to and throughout the animal kingdom, including intelligent primates (thus humans as well). What struck me about this fact, not entirely unknown of course, was that it might be filled out so as to contribute ontological or metaphysical plausibility if not compelling reasons on behalf of the epistemic and metaphysical arguments associated with this principle of illusion (at once concealment and revelation, as it turns out) in Advaita Vedānta philosophy in Hinduism (by way of extending its consistency and coherence, for example). I don’t recall seeing this topic discussed with regard to Advaita philosophy, so I would be delighted to learn if anyone has ever come across such a treatment. 

Philosophers from the West (and theists as well), to the extent that they know something about Hinduism and Indian/Indic philosophies, tend to be quite skeptical if not implicitly dismissive about the notion of illusion in Vedānta (not dissimilar to the general attitude toward or assessment of absolute idealism within Western history of philosophy, which is not to claim or imply any equivalence between the two metaphysical systems), and even sympathetic philosophers often avoid writing much about it, perhaps because it has entered, in a crude or degraded form, into everyday discourse, even though experience tells me few people have anything even approaching a grasp of its actual meaning and function within Advaita Vedānta philosophy (not infrequently the vulgar version is casually invoked as an excuse for irrational, irresponsible or simply ill-mannered behaviour, as when someone proclaims, ‘it’s all an illusion anyway’), which should not be surprising given that its technical and full meaning is constitutionally unavailable to us in an (at once) epistemic, existential, spiritual, or metaphysical sense until we have had a “Brahman-realization,” that is, an experiential awareness of the (absolutely) true nature of Reality (in this worldview, such omniscience, as one of the three properties—the others being omnipotence and omnibenevolence—most often attributed to the deity of Abrahamic theism, is not the prerogative of God alone and thus claimed to be available, in principle at least, to human beings!). 

* Please see the essays collected in Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66) (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


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