“Just get rid of the false and you will automatically realize the true”
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Philosophers and Yogis are both concerned with making sense of the world. They seek to fundamentally orient themselves in reality. While the stratagem they employ appear different on the surface, I want to explore the deep similarities in their approaches. Yogis and Philosophers both understand that truth (whatever that is) is not something external to a problem, but already contained within it. They both understand that to find answers, you must simply remove all that is superfluous, redundant, or excessive. Then, the reality will shine forth.
On Philosophy of Science
Do scientific theories aim to give us a literally true story of what the world is like, or do they simply function to provide a comprehensive, accessible and adequate description of the phenomena around us? A scientific realist would hold that a true physical theory is representative of an independently existing, objective world. Alternatively, an anti-realist reading of a theory asserts that the “function of a physical theory is to offer an intelligible, systematic conceptual pattern for observed data, thereby uniting phenomena that are otherwise surprising, anomalous or wholly unnoticed” (Alan Wallace). As such, theories are judged on their usefulness in deriving actual observable quantities. Moreover, for many anti-realists, the entities posited, such as electrons, Higgs bosons, and quantum fields, are merely theoretical instruments that do not correspond to anything actual. Each of these philosophies has a standard counter-argument.
Scientific realism is often challenged with the pessimistic meta-induction. It argues that our faith in our current scientific models is unfounded. Given that almost all of our previous theories were found to be false, what’s to say our current theories won’t suffer similar fates? The counter to anti-realist positions is the no-miracles argument. This argument states that it would be miraculous if our theories were so successful in their predictive power, yet did not provide a true empirical account of the way the world is. There is a flavor of realism that I find most defensible — structural realism. Its group of adherents isolates two key elements that are integral to the phenomenal world: relations and relata. At the core, there are abstract entities, and relationships between them. However, natural language often obscures which entities, and which relations are present in a given scenario.
As our scientific theories have evolved, so have the ways we symbolically articulated them. Consider the movement from theories based in language, to ones based in mathematics, as pictured in Figure 1. What is lost in this transition, and what is preserved?
It appears that natural language syntax is removed, and these symbolizations isolate the relations that hold between entities. By getting rid of the particulars of the english language, we can isolate the logical relations that hold true for myriad different instantiations.
Equations allows us to define a global set of relations with room for local instantiation
But why is it important to isolate relations? I’d say, because the world as it appears to us is not the entire picture. Reality is heavily mediated by our sensory organs, and we seek a truth that exists independently of our senses.
“There is nothing to understand but ignorance for the enlightened person” -Shunryu Suzuki
The perceived distinction between macroscopic objects is seemingly self-evident. The boundary between a coffee cup, and a pencil, no matter how close they get, is clear. It’s implausible that you’d ever mistake them as coinciding, or being the same object. Yet, suppose we were sensitive to infrared radiation — their boundaries would begin to blur. Imagine if we could visually resolve the bacterium present on each of these objects, again the difference between them would begin to fade. This line of reasoning can be applied to all the entities we perceive. The boundaries between objects, the way in which we intuitively parse the world, is deeply rooted in our psychology. It is highly contingent on the specific regions of the electromagnetic, auditory, olfactory, and particulate spectrums we have evolved to be sensitive to. However, the situation becomes even stranger when we consider consequences of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Objects become not only contingent on our embodiment, but on our inertial frame of reference within spacetime. In certain cases, objects can differ in length, and events can differ in perceived simultaneity for separate inertial observers. An even more peculiar circumstance arises if we consider the Unruh Effect. It is theorized that an accelerating observer will observe blackbody radiation where an inertial observer would see none. In essence, something is seen by an accelerating person that is invisible to a stationary person.
As such, we appear to be in a position where the particular entities we see are restricted by our sensory faculties, and whether we see them at all is contingent on our inertial frame of reference. In this peculiar situation we find ourselves in — what do we have left to hold onto? The truth devoid of fluff, which is simply: that there are relations that hold between entities.
The Jnana Yogi
“Yoga is 90% waste removal” T. K. V. Desikachar
In the same way that language obscures pure logical relations, our conditioned habits and behaviors obscure our knowledge of our deeper Self. Yoga is a way of undoing this, and helping us re-cognize our intrinsic nature.
Yoga is not simply physical postures. The asanas and surya namaskars (sun salutations) we most often associate with Yoga belong to the Hatha branch, founded in the 11th century. Other branches of Yoga include Raja (royal yoga), Karma (the yoga of action), and Bhakti (the yoga of devotion).
However, the most ancient form of yoga is known as Jnana Yoga — the Yoga of Knowledge and Wisdom. One of the key aspects of this branch of Yoga can be summarized by the Mahavakyas — the great sayings. These are fundamental realizations on the nature of reality, discovered by the Yogis of the past. They all point to the fact that our personal self (Atman) and the Absolute (Brahman) are one in the same. Below are the four Mahavakyas.
There is one absolute reality
That Thou Art
Atman and Brahman are the same
I am Brahman
The practices of a Jnana Yogi are designed to lead to the experiential understanding, and total embodiment of these sayings. The practice I want to focus on is called Neti Neti. It is a process of self-inquiry, undertaken to rid oneself of the illusion that Atman is separate from Brahman. In English, Neti Neti translates to “not this, not this”. In this practice, you try to determine what you really are by denying what you clearly are not. Am I my finger? Clearly not. Am I my thoughts? Clearly not. Am I my legs, eyes? No. And so on. Through this process of negation, a Yogi comes back to his natural liberated state.
“What is the unconfused intrinsic nature? It is naturally present in one’s own innate nature, not brought from elsewhere” Dilgo Khyentse
The Neti-Neti practice helps us undo our attachment to this body-mind vessel. Try it yourself. This sense you have of existing, this sense of “I am”, of being — try to locate it. If you can’t immediately pinpoint it, first begin by determining what it is not.
“Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas” Dogen
This process of getting rid of the false to arrive at the true is mirrored by the precise, symbolic representation of physical theories. To isolate, and arrive at the ground, we must determine what is extra. Two quests for truth, one inner, one outer — appear to have radically similar methodologies. Another way that nature is telling us that the distinction between outside and inside is merely a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Primordial Purity — Dilgo Khyentse
Choosing Reality — Alan Wallace
Genjo Koan — Dogen
One Without a Second — Hali Schwartz
Unruh Effect — Ulf Leonhardt, Itay Griniasty, Sander Wildeman, Emmanuel Fort, and Mathias Fink. Classical analog of the Unruh effect. Phys. Rev., A98(2):022118, 2018.
Special Relativity — Albert Einstein. On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. Annalen der Physik, 1905.