Thursday, 7 February 2013

Shankara and the Ontological Argument for the existence of God

Alexander Pruss who has made a special study of the ontological arguments for the existence of God uses a supposed extract from Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya by Shankaracarya to bolster a modal argument.
Shankara's principle
The citation runs:
If a thing outside awareness is as impossible as a barren woman’s son how can we even feel as if something is outside?  Nothing even appears to be like an impossibility.
Says Dr.Pruss in a note:
The quote is taken from an indirect source viz. Quoted in Arindam Chakrabarti, “Metaphysics in India”, in: Jaegwon Kim and Ernest Sosa (eds.), Companion to Metaphysics, Oxford / Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995, 318–323, p. 319.  I am most grateful to Mr. Saikat Guha for the attribution of this principle to Shankaracarya and for the source of this quote.

I can now reveal that the source of this quote is B.S.B. II.ii.28 and it is part of a critique of the Vijnanavadin (Subjective Idealist) school of Buddhism. Because the whole section is of great interest I refer to a scanned version which I made of the translation by Swami Gambhirananda.

Hardy followers of links, a dwindling trade, will notice that Swami’s translation differs from that quoted by Pruss which Chakrabarti offers.

Sw.G. trans:
 Else why should they say, “as though external”? For ‘nobody speaks thus: “Vistumitra appears like the son of a barren woman”. Accordingly, those who accept truth to be just what it is actually perceived to be, should accept a thing as it actually reveals itself externally, and not “as ‘though appearing outside”.

It seems clear that Chakrabati is altering Shankara’s original to achieve a certain reading or to guide the original towards his own understanding, in effect making clear what in his opinion is Shankara’s purport. In my opinion this is mistaken as we can see when we look at the vijnanavadin position that is being controverted.

 Well, I do not say that I do not perceive any object, but all that I hold is ‘that I do not perceive anything  apart from the perception.

This is the common subjective idealist view; we are in direct contact only with our perceptions. Shankara simply makes the point that this is contrary to our normal manner of speaking and represents a first move in a revisionary metaphysics. That this is based on a misunderstanding of possibility and impossibility he elucidates in a subsequent note.

The Buddhist’s retort is significant:
Buddhist. Since no object can possibly exist externally, I  come to ‘the conclusion that it appears as though it is outside.

This mention of possibility which has the true ‘idealist stink’ is the opening for Shankara:

Vedantin. This conclusion is not honest, since the possibility or impossibility of the existence of a thing is determined in accordance with ‘the applicability or non-applicability of the means of knowledge to it, but the applicability or non applicability of the means of knowledge is not ascertained in a accordance with the possibility or impossibility (of the thing) What is known through any one of the means of knowledge, direct perception etc., is possible, and what cannot be through any one of these means of knowledge is impossible.  

What I understand him as saying here is that putting the notion of possibility before the applicability of the means of knowledge i.e. the pramanas, in this case perception, is to reverse the process. We come to know that a thing/state of affairs is possible by perceiving it. (Scholastic tag: What is, is possible) We do not first decide whether or not a thing is possible and from this go on to say that it perceivable. It is perhaps this insight that Chakrabati is gesturing towards in his ‘citation’.

Nothing even appears to be like an impossibility.

Pruss’s use of this gets Shankara’s realism precisely backwards:
Shankara himself apparently used his principle that impossible things do not even appear to argue the hyperidealistic claim that it does not even appear to us that there is an external world.  
The fuller citation demonstrates that this is a mistake.

What Shankara would make of the Ontolological argument is quite clear. We cannot move from a determination of possibility to a determination of actuality.

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