Nagarjuana’s conception of reality, as set forth in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, is one that encompasses both extreme skepticism and radically paranormal ideas. He suggests that the limits of our language and conceptual abilities preclude any sort of accurate perception of reality. By doing this he implies that the true nature of reality is something more ‘real’ than the world we normally think of ourselves as inhabiting from day to day although it might be entirely inaccessible to us. The question of whether he has any firm basis for such controversial views soon arises.
It is true to say that his thoughts about the fallibility of our senses and our lack of objectivity seem reasonable. We are constantly confronted with instances where the truth of a situation and our perception of it are wildly different purely because of our essentially subjective view. However the leap from skepticism and self-doubt to the conception of higher levels of reality is a large one to make and needs to be thoroughly justified. Of course, many of his views stem from his religious beliefs but it would be unfair to say that he allows theological bias entirely to cloud his logic.
His assertions might contain innumerable paradoxes and difficulties that could be attributed to his beliefs but at no point does he make sweeping statements or assumptions of the type that undermined Descartes’ project of supposedly pure inquiry. This relative lack of bias is what makes it possible for someone taking an agnostic or even atheist view to appreciate his work. The religious undertones, such that there are, are unobtrusive enough to be absorbed into a more scientific version of his conception.
There is no need, as is the case with many philosophers, to disregard whole branches of his work because they rest solely on the presupposition of religious convictions. Thus, the notion of a reality that is more immediate or even separate from ours can be thought of in pseudo-scientific terms. We can then start to look at the biological and psychological implications of our relationship with this theoretical higher world and incorporate them into Nagarjuana’s views. The idea of hierarcheal realities is certainly a facinating one but, superficially, it seemes to be just that; an interesting concept without much basis or reason.
Like much of Nagarjuana’s philosphy it is impossible to disprove and difficult to prove (unless one was to travel to a higher reality and then bring back evidence of the journey! ). The lack of any disproof should certainly not be taken as proof itself. Assuming, for the moment, that reality is indeed multi-layed there must logically be levels of reality below our own as well as above. Dreams are the most obvious example of this (though perhaps someone in a dreamless sleep might be said to be experiencing a yet lower level of consciousness.
The reality experienced by animals might also be incorporated into this scheme. The case for some sort of animal consciousness is a convincing one. The fact that certain species exhibit complicated communication systems and social interactions is enough to demonstrate that they do operate on a higher level than that of simple instinct. It therefore seems plausible to say that many animals do exhibit behavior that indicates some sort of consciousness. The only question is therefore how this relates to our own.
The difficulties of finding a definite answer to this are explored by Thomas Nagel in his essay What is it like to be a bat?. As we can never have first hand knowledge of what it is like to be an animal it is very hard to say anything useful about the differences between our consciousness and that of an animal. To consider different types of consciousness we must therefore focus on the different types of reality of which we have reliable experiences. It is probably the dream state that we have the most first hand knowledge about.
If we are to start extrapolating information about the relationship between the everyday reality we experience in our waking state and any theoretical higher ones it is the relationship between dreaming and waking that will prove most useful to examine. If higher realities exist beyond out own the question of how to access them arises and lucid dreaming (the processing of ‘waking up’ whilst still remaining within a dream) might provide some clues as to what the process would be like. Whilst dreaming and in a non-lucid state the dreamer regards the world around him as entirely real.
Upon waking we can always look back on a dream and see the apparently illogical and paradoxical elements of the dream world but whilst experiencing it mental blind spots appear to exist that prevent us from seeing them. However, upon entering a lucid state within the dream these mental barriers are destroyed and the absurdities become apparent. The dreamer is then able to take a mental step back from the ‘reality’ of the dream and see it for what it really is; a non-coherent world where object independence is a comforting illusion. It becomes clear that an object within a dream has no existence whatsoever outside of the dreamer’s mind.
This objective step back and dismissal of the concepts of object independence is precisely what Nagarjuana encourages us to do in the real world. He is, however, highly skeptical of our ability to actually do so in life, believing as he does that we are fundamentally limited by our natures. Our ability to transcend the reality of dreams whilst still inhabiting them is a definite sign of hope. It seems that although our conceptual and linguistic limitations make life difficult for us we should not rule out the possibility of eventually overcoming them.
The lucid dreamer is aware of the waking reality whilst still inhabiting the dreaming one and it seems to be this knowledge that gives him power over the dreamscape. With practice a lucid dreamer can exert complete control over a dream environment rather than being a passive character being pulled along in a narrative that he has little or no conscious control over. Extrapolating from the notion of lucid dreaming, it is possible that a higher state of reality might be obtained if we were able to ‘wake up’ from the everyday world.
We might then catch a glimpse of the next level of reality without actually leaving this one. The many benefits of such a transcendence might include the ability to supercede the supposedly universal physical laws of our world. This might happen in much the same way that a lucid dreamer affects his surroundings through a sheer effort of will. Carrying the analogy further, the act of physically waking up from a dream might be compared to the point of death. Just as we move up a level as we fully awake (both physically and mentally), death might be the process of ‘waking’ into the next level of reality.
The only evidence we might put forward for this is the near-death experiences described by people who have almost reached the point of death but been saved at the last moment. These, however, are fairly unreliable as the experience can be satifactorily explained by considering the trauma that the subjects go through and the fact that the oxygen supply to the brain is being compromised. The striking similarities between diverse accounts are compelling but can usually be explained in conventional terms.
Convincing theories about the origins of the tunnel effect (a phenomenon common to many cases) have been put forward involving the way in which the brain processes images and the effects of oxygen starvation. Indeed, astronauts exposed to high G-forces in training have related similar experiences and these can clearly be connected to lack of oxygen reaching the brain. If accounts about the point of death are unreliable then we must consider the notion of someone ‘waking up’ from our reality but remaining a part of it, just as a lucid dreamer remains part of his dream.
Of course, the usefulness and objectiveness of accounts of altered states is also highly questionable but might at least prove more reliable than descriptions of death. If someone did master the technique of accessing higher realms of thought at will then describing the process to someone in the real world would be a daunting task. If two people have shared the same sort of spiritual experience, be it through meditation, drugs or some other technique, then even discussing the experience amongst themselves can be an immensly frustrating task.
One is constantly striving to put into words concepts and feels that seem far too big for our limited language. It is tempting at this point to concede that thought about such experiences must indeed ‘turn back’ simply because our language is insufficient. However, the fact remains that we can conceive of such things and so understanding might not be beyond our grasp after all. Notions about higher consciousness would appear to be on the peripheries of our understanding rather than outside of it altogether.
Our language is indeed bound up with our fundamentally object-independent view of the world. Thus, although thought and discussion about spirituality is not necessarily impossible, it is certainly very difficult. Often, the best one can manage is pale analogies. There is always a nagging doubt that by putting a spiritual experience into words some vital, inexpressible sense is being lost. The task of explaining the experience to a skeptical observer who has never entered an altered state or even doubts their existance is clearly even more difficult than trying to do so to a sympathetic listener.
The limits of language make accurate description hard and the formulation and setting down of a method than can be followed by others nigh on impossible. The optimistic view is therefore tenable but it always needs to be qualified to prevent it from seeming nai?? ve. Returning to the central analogy, and applying it the other way, it would be like trying to explain the concept of the real world to someone in your own dream. (Of course, only a lucid dreamer could attempt this. The person you were talking to might appear to understand the concept of a reality above his own but how would you go about explaining how to wake up to a person who, in the everyday conception of reality and dreams, exists only in your own imagination? This could be taken as confirmation that we could never access the next level of reality because we are ourselves characters within a dream of sorts. This would be a mistake as we would be taking the relationships between sleeping and waking and waking and higher realities to be indentical.
It must be kept in mind that the abstract nature of the comparison means that the two relationships are, at best, merely analogous. Another way of accessing altered realities might be with mind-altering drugs. The effects of drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can be explained entirely in terms of the physical effects on the brain. At the same time this should not be allowed to detract from the intensity and power of the experiences that people have described. A skeptic would very easily be able to explain so-called spiritual experiences as the brain’s way of dealing with the chemical disruptions being caused.
However, by considering altered states as the lifting of mental barriers it seems appropriate to describe them as different realities, or at least glimpses of an ‘unfiltered’ version of our own. Our brains are being bombarded by endless amounts of sense data twenty-four hours a day and yet we find it very easy to concentrate on a particular object. When listening to a piece of music we become much more sensitive to sound. When we are reading a book the other objects in our line of sight are visible and yet we completely ignore them.
Rather than thinking of these processes as the heightening and narrowing of particular senses we could instead think of them as the partial blocking out of any unwanted sense data. Thus, all senses beyond the ones that we are most actively using are dulled. The ones we are using are sharpened by the exclusion from out immediate consciousness of parts of the data out brain receives (with the book example this would be the sight of objects besides the book). Now, whilst dreaming our brain is prevented from actually moving our bodies so as to prevent us from coming to harm.
In addition, we are entirely oblivious to the sense data from the real world that is processed by a part of our brain separate from our consciousness. Returning to the lucid dreaming/higher reality analogy, we could now think of our conventional reality as a sort of dream. As such, there would be mental barriers in place to prevent us from glimpsing higher realities. This would allow us to go about our daily lives without being bombarded by unfiltered sense data from this reality, which could be thought of as the inklings of the higher one.
We could also postulate that there are barriers in place analogous to those that prevent us from moving our physical bodies whilst asleep. Mind-altering drugs might therefore be a way to break down these barriers and to catch a glimpse of our reality striped of the comforting barriers that make everyday life possible. The journey from sleeping to waking can be made by discarding the mental barriers that sleep itself throws up (that is, physically waking up).
Therefore the journey to a yet more objective and higher reality might be made by learning how to discard the mental barriers of own world and learning to cope with the psychological trauma that unfiltered reality causes. This then casts doubt on Nagarjuana’s skeptical assertion that there is no way that we can even glimpse the true nature of reality. It is true to say that we are so bound up in our conventional notions of reality and our limited language that spirituality is very hard to describe or study objectively. However, there seems to be a great body of evidence to suggest that there is another reality out there.
Even if there is nothing that can be held up as definite scientific proof we can still indulge in reasoned trust (rather than blind faith). Even if we cannot understand such things fully, we have the means to catch glimpses of them and perhaps eventually build up a coherent picture. We are sorely limited in this by our language which, try as we might, shapes the very nature of our thoughts. If indeed there is some justification for believing that there is an accessible level of reality above what we regard as the conventional world then the question of whether there are still further levels beyond that one arises.
The notion is one that has been explored extensively in science fiction and fantasy; from Jorge Luis Borges’ The Circular Ruins to recent novels such as Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles. Of course, the reason why this is such an enduring concept in fiction is that it is far-fetched and yet there is no way of disproving the theory. The concept of a dream within a dream is one that many people have encountered first hand. Someone can wake up within a dream (in a non-lucid sense) and believe that they have stopped dreaming.
People will often start to go about their morning routine within a dream until the narrative drifts off or they actually wake up. Now, if it is assumed that higher levels of reality do in fact exist (admittedly a large logical leap) then it seems obvious that the infinite series of realities might extend above our own as well as below. Each time someone transcended a reality and was able to view it objectively (by inhabiting the next one up) they would see that their last position was a relatively more subjective one.
This would mean that however far back one steps a truly objective view could never be reached. So long as we consider a subjective viewer taking conceptual steps back there will always be a position from which this viewer can in turn be viewed. The impossibility of absolute objectivity is part of the basis for Nagarjuana’s skeptical view of reality as something of which we can never actually have a proper understanding. This would mean that we could never actually talk about knowing (or justifiably assuming) anything, only about believing that we know things.
Without assuming anything is seems difficult to see how Nagarjuana expects anyone to accept any conclusions he might come to on a logical basis. There are certain things, such as our existence, that we are forced to assume if we are to be able to go about our lives or to make any sort of statement about anything. For example, Descartes’ assumption that he thinks starts to seem like a very tempting one to make as it means that by assuming that one thing we can start to say definite things about ourselves and our world.
Nagarjuana’s skepticism creates difficult problems in that it means that anything he says is surely just as empty and as questionable as the doctrines he is opposing. He does present a response to this objection in the Vigrahavyavartani but his logic is questionable at best. ‘If I had any proposition, this defect would be mine. I have however, no proposition. Therefore, there is no defect that is mine. ‘ The sidestepping of the issue by means of an appeal to logic makes his argument more consistent but still leaves it unconvincing. From a logical point of view his argument makes some sort of sense.
He claims that although all statements, including his, are empty he ‘has no thesis’ and there is nothing that he is bound to prove. There is nothing contradictory about this but it does raise the question of whether or not there is any point in asserting anything. The extreme skepticism he propounds often makes the task of actually moving towards an object view seems daunting and even impossible. He seems to play upon the emptiness of statements made by others and yet to gloss over the fact that he has actually denied himself the power to assert anything as well.
Common sense is dismissed as an empty concept that depends on the false assumption that objects are independent and self-sustaining. At the same time, coherent arguments are offered and appeals are made to the common sense of the reader. It might be said that such paradoxes and difficulties are only to be expected when dealing with issues on the edge of our conception. The mere presence of paradox however cannot be taken as proof that we have hit upon the correct theory.
It would be entirely possible to come up with a drastically different conception of reality, which would be equally paradoxical. Even so, we are yet again left with interesting concepts that can never be disproved but that are also built upon tenuous foundations. The impossibility of proof that underlies Nagarjuana’s arguments is one that again very neatly allows him to opt out of actually providing definite evidence for his assertions because he can always claim that any proof he offered would be worthless.
This is perhaps a slightly critical view but it does highlight the obvious problem one might have with accepting anything that Nagarjuana claims. The problem that stems from this illocutionary negation is the one that surrounds any form of extreme skepticism; by negating the act of assertion the skeptic is unable to assert his own position, which has automatically been falsified. This paradox arises from his radical rejection of the pramana theory, which follows from his ideas about the emptiness of all things. It is hard to fault the argument that true objectivity can never be acquired.
Just like an infinite series of realities would imply the lack of a beginning and an end, the different degrees of subjectivity and objectivity that we observe would imply the lack of a fundamentally objective position from which all others could be measured. A counter to this might be to consider that although we can never measure the metaphorical scales that Nagarjuana describes against a universal absolute we can ourselves decide upon a convenient reference point and measure from it. Our reference point when talking about the nature of reality, for example, is clearly the world that we normally think of our selves as inhabiting when awake.
It is this (admittedly subjective) reference point that then allows us to consider realities both above and below our own. We might not be able to freely access the reality above our own but we can at least appreciate that it exists. Thus, we can clearly go about the identification of relatively objective and subjective positions and thus work towards a view that is consistent and practical (if not objective in a rigorously logical sense). ‘The means of knowing are not established by themselves or by one another or by other means of knowing. ‘
Nagarjuana therefore successfully exposes the paradoxes inherent in the idea of logically unquestionable proof but he fails to offer any sort of satisfactory solution. He simply exposes the paradoxes and difficulties inherent in the old system and replaces it which a doxastic ascent that is equally paradoxical (if not more so). It seems, yet again, that his refusal to accept even the most basic of assumptions is causing significant logical problems that could only be resolved through a moderation of his skepticism. This comes through in his denial of the self-proving proposition.
Admittedly, in terms of the ray of light analogy the notion of a light source that illuminates itself is an uncomfortable one. The notion of a self-proving proposition is, however, far more plausible. The denial of a self-proving statement implies that the notion on an analytical statement (one whose truth is self-evident) is also a fallacy. Thus, tautologous statements such as ‘everything that is untrue is not true’ would be denied their obvious truth. This not only seems intuitively wrong but there is also very little basis for taking such a radical and problematic step.
It seems that a qualification of Nagarjuana’s skepticism would resolve many of the problems being thrown up whilst retaining some of the vital sense of his argument. By assuming some things, but always keeping in mind that they are only assumptions, we can start to explore extreme possibilities with both confidence and humility. Considering our knowledge as merely belief, but belief with a significant and useful reference point, we can strive towards a balance between naiveti?? and extreme skepticism.