Ramalingam’s remarks in the previous post on “Explaining Embodiment (1)” provide a basis for a trenchant argument against the view that the self is identical to, or constituted by, brain processes.
According to Ramalingam, the self is a soul, a non-material entity whose essential nature is consciousness. Since only consciousness can be the bearer of experience, knowledge, and volition, it follows that only the self or soul is the subject which undergoes experiences, acquires knowledge, and engages in volition and action.
Now, it should be clear that the materialist or physicalist identity theory of consciousness, i.e., the view that consciousness is a process of the brain, is absurd.
The reason is that if it makes sense to hold that consciousness is a process of the brain, then, by virtue of the logic of identity (if X is identical to Y, then they have identical properties) and the fact that consciousness is the bearer of experience, knowledge, and agency, it must also make sense to hold that a brain process is the bearer of experience, knowledge, and agency.
But this is absurd. It is nonsense to hold that any process, including a brain process, can be an experiencer, knower, or an agent or entity engaging in intentional action. It is, in the parlance of the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, a category mistake to ascribe experience, knowledge, volition, or agency, to any process. A category mistake occurs when we incoherently ascribe properties belonging to one category of reality to an entirely different category of reality, e.g., the literal claim that Mondays are blue. This is a category mistake since it is absurd to literally attribute colors to weekdays.
Processes may constitute the means by which experience or knowledge is acquired, volition is exercised, and action performed, but it is absurd to accord to processes themselves the status of an experiencer, knower, or intentional agency. This is tantamount to process fetishism!
In Ramalingam’s view, a self or soul, the experiencer, knower, and agent or doer, cannot meaningfully be identified with any part of the body, including the brain, or the body as a whole. This is because the body, including the brain, is made of material constituents which inherently lack consciousness, and, hence, are inherently incapable of experience, knowledge, intelligence, volition, affect, and intentional agency.
Since the self is the bearer of experience, knowledge, intelligence, volition, affect, and intentional agency, it follows that the materialist or physicalist view identifying the self with the body and/or brain is false.
The brain is a material structure, and since material constituents are inherently lacking in consciousness, and, therefore, are also inherently incapable of experience, knowledge, intelligence, volition, affect, and agency or “doership”, materialism or physicalism is, in principle, incapable of explaining how the material structure of the brain can give rise to experience, knowledge, intelligence, volition, affect, and agency.
Structures made exclusively of constituents inherently lacking a property x cannot possibly account for the existence or emergence of that property.
Neurons are material constituents lacking in consciousness, and, hence, lacking in experience, intelligence, volition, affect, and a sense of agency.
Therefore, their processes cannot possibly account for the reality of consciousness, experience, intelligence, volition, affect, and a sense of agency.
Quantitative complexity, i.e., a vast increase in the number of the same kind of elements or constituents, cannot possibly account for the existence or emergence of properties vastly different from and of a higher order than those constituents.
Thus, the sheer number of material constituents, e.g., neurons, at work in the brain cannot account for vastly different and higher order properties such as experience, intelligence, intentionality, affect, and a sense of agency.
My arm may be the locus of an injury, but it is not my arm which is the experiencer and knower of the pain resulting from the injury. It is absurd to say that my arm knows that it is in pain.
Nothing in the structure of the arm, or the brain for that matter, can possibly account for how the sense of ownership, the sense that it is my arm, or that I am experiencing pain in my arm, arises.
It is the self or soul which is conscious of the pain in that part of its body. Thus, it is the self or soul, the experiencer and knower, which identifies the location of pain, not the arm itself!
Since this is the case even with physical sensations, clearly it makes no sense to attribute thoughts, emotions, and volitions to the body or any part of it, including the brain.
Ramalingam’s remarks also provide a basis for an equally trenchant argument against the traditional Indian (Advaita) “Vedantic” view that the self or “Atman” transcends all experiences, and, therefore, is not the experiencer of suffering.
On the contrary, Ramalingam holds that it is only the self, soul, or “Atman”, which, by virtue of its essential attribute of consciousness, undergoes all experiences in its embodiment in a particular physical form, including experiences of suffering.
Since the body cannot be the experiencer, or knower, or agent, it is only the self, soul, or “Atman” which can experience and know anything, exercise volition, and perform an intentional action.
Hence, it is the self, or soul, or “Atman” which undergoes experiences of pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering.
Since Ramalingam affirms that it is the self or soul which undergoes experiences of happiness and suffering, he avoids the incoherence which afflicts the traditional Indian (Advaita) Vedantin’s advocacy of moral precepts pertaining to charity, compassion, etc.
If the self or “Atman” transcends all experiences, and is thereby immune to experiences of suffering, what is the point of advocating moral precepts designed to make one abstain from inflicting harm on others, or to encourage one to contribute to the happiness of others?
The advocacy of these moral precepts makes sense only on the assumption that others are selves capable of experiencing suffering and happiness.
If others are in reality “One Atman” which transcends all experiences and is thereby immune to experiences of happiness or suffering, it makes no difference whether we engage in actions which apparently produce happiness, or which apparently produce suffering, to them.
Indeed, if the self really transcends all experience, the notion of performing an action itself becomes meaningless! There can be no action without experience. Hence, Advaita Vedanta also denies that the Atman is an agent or doer.
But this only firmly hoists Advaita Vedanta on the petard of incoherence in its advocacy, not only of moral precepts, but also spiritual practices such as listening to the Sruti or cardinal texts, reflection, meditation, etc.
Given that, according to Advaita Vedanta, the self is not a doer or an agent, it is meaningless and delusive to advocate any moral precepts or spiritual practices since these precepts or practices presuppose a self who is the bearer of experience and knowledge and who can act in accordance with those precepts, or engage in those practices.
Therefore, Suddha Sanmargam, with its emphasis on the cardinal truth that the self or soul is the subject of experiences, a knower, and an agent or performer of actions is, unlike Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, eminently consistent in its advocacy of the ethic of compassion.
To return to the task of explaining embodiment, I intend to address Ramalingam’s original and radical answer to the central question “Why is there embodiment for a soul?” in my next post in this series.