Atheism (and Theism) vs. Reality: The Thing in Itself
Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play. —Immanuel Kant
You only know me as you see me, not as I actually am. —Kant again
In the previous two installments of my atheism series on this here blog, I attempted to demonstrate, or at least to suggest strongly, that scientific materialism, on which so much atheism is based, is essentially an attempt to superimpose human ape psychology onto an assumed external universe. To be fair to materialistic atheists, any perceptual interpretation of reality does likewise, including theistic interpretations. Consequently, the wisest approach to understanding ultimate reality is to dedicate one’s intellect to a process or method designed to go beyond the intellect.
Before moving away from the largely faith-based interpretation of reality called scientific realism, alias scientism, I may as well mention Julius Evola’s peculiar critique of the inferiority of science as a means of understanding the world, since I’ve been slowly grinding through his book Pagan Imperialism, and it is kind of interesting.
Evola was certainly no modernist, and held in contempt most of the ideals of the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. He considered such phenomena as egalitarianism, socialism, and even democracy to be signs of a degenerate falling away from our ancestral, primordial Aryan heritage, and a move towards the feminine, the Semitic, and the “telluric.” He preferred a hierarchical, masculine, patriarchal, Aryan, and “solar” society, in which the aristocracy, the elect, the superior men reminiscent of Nietzsche’s overman, would be aware of superior truths unavailable and possibly even inapplicable to the plebeian masses. Thus he considered science to be symptomatic of a weak, degenerate attempt at universalism and equity, a one size fits all approach to truth that he found reprehensible. But enough of Evola for now, and almost enough of scientific materialism.
As a Buddhist speaking to other educated Buddhists it would naturally be easiest for me to explain things with the aid of plenty of Pali (and maybe Sanskrit) jargon; but considering that some readers are not Buddhists, and that many even of the Buddhists are innocent of Pali technical language, I will conscientiously keep the Indic languages to a minimum, and restrict myself mostly to regular English and the language of western philosophy. To a western mind western concepts might strike more traction anyway, even if the mind belongs to a veteran western Buddhist.
I’ve already mentioned some classic western philosophy in a previous installment of this prolonged rant against materialistic atheism by mentioning George Berkeley and his idea of immaterialism (a little Latin: esse es percipi—“to exist is to be perceived”). I could also have mentioned Bertrand Russell’s weird yet wise observation that there is no way anyone could disprove the notion that this entire universe was created half an hour ago by a deity with a strange sense of humor, implanting into our minds a lifetime of memories of events that never actually happened. But in this particular installment of Contra Atheism (and Contra Theism too, incidentally), I intend to feature the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Because our peculiar relation with Reality is universal, or at least universal to us humans, philosophers in different parts of the world have arrived at similar conclusions; and Kant arrived at conclusions that many Buddhists would accept as valid, though perhaps with a few qualifications.
I may as well take one last swipe at scientism, the faith of most atheists in the west as far as I can see, by pointing out Kant’s declaration (and he wrote an entire book on the subject) that no amount of scientific progress will ever bring humanity one step closer, not one micron, not one angstrom unit, to a knowledge of ultimate reality, which really is the only reality. In other words, no amount of refinement of perception and intellectuality, regardless of its basis and internal validity, will bring us any closer to reality because reality is not perceptual or intellectual. This declaration of Kant’s is based on his idea of the two levels of truth, which incidentally is very similar to an idea also found in Buddhism.
In Buddhism there is the doctrine of two levels of truth: ultimate truth and conventional truth. Conventional truth is the truth of the common worldling, and is perceptual and symbolic. This is the world of trees, rocks, clouds, people, politics, mathematics, etc. Ultimate truth is interpreted variously by different schools of Buddhist philosophy, but in my opinion the most advanced philosophical schools of Buddhism agree that ultimate truth is beyond perception, is not symbolic, and cannot be described or understood intellectually. Vedantist Hinduism also has a similar idea with its duality of Brahman (Ultimate Reality, the world soul) and Maya (the illusory world). In fact I’ve been told that even Catholic theology has a similar distinction between God, which is ultimately real, and the world, which is dependent upon God and only relatively real.
Kant had a very similar idea with his distinction of the thing in itself and the thing as it seems. The thing in itself is ultimately real. The thing as it seems is only virtually real because it is a perceptual construct—and according to Kant, only this second kind of truth is available to us humans. Kant considered even time and space to be mental constructs, the purpose of which being to give us some sort of structure with which to make sense of the data processed by our own senses; and, as science itself has to acknowledge, our everyday experience is not directly of reality, but is a symbolic interpretation of it. So Kant apparently would agree with my claim above that attempts to understand the universe perceptually, for example using scientific empiricism, is essentially a case of us superimposing human ape psychology onto a presumed physical universe.
This is really the problem of science, and of an intellectual or even perceptual approach to the world: symbols, which is all perceptions are, are qualitatively, radically different from what they are supposed to represent. The standard example is the letters T-R-E-E on a piece of paper; they are of course VERY different from an actual tree. And the most refined scientific or artistic or even spiritual concepts about trees take us no closer to a tree as it really is in itself; all we get is more complicated symbols that remain infinitely distant from the ultimate reality of trees. We get more sophisticated ideas about our perceptions of trees, but we cannot get past the perceptions, and the arbitrary symbols. An entire library of books, and an entire scientific mind full of botanical thoughts and images, gets no closer to the thing in itself of a tree than do the letters T-R-E-E. The same goes for pretty much everything in our world of experience: colors, shapes, textures, as well as words, numbers, and feelings are all symbols created in our mind to represent some reality beyond our direct, non-symbolic experience. This is why Kant claimed that science, no matter how far it progresses, will never get us one step closer to an understanding of ultimate reality. Furthermore, Kant asserted that the thing in itself is forever beyond the reach of the human mind, and that we must always live a life of illusion, if not of delusion.
But Kant was evidently not a mystic, despite his belief in invisible spirits interacting with us, and he was mistaken in his assumption that no thing in itself can ever be known by a human mind. The human mind has one thing in itself, one aspect of ultimate reality, potentially within its reach—and that is the thing in itself of the mind itself, the thing in itself of our own consciousness.
It seems to me in fact that this endeavor to experience the ultimate reality of our own mind is the fundamental theme of advanced spiritual practice and theology. Advanced Buddhist practice, for example, strives to simplify one’s life and quiet the mind in order to allow one’s awareness to see through the web of interacting symbols which distract us, and delude us into believing that it is reality, and not just a web of symbols. By practicing advanced meditative techniques and cultivating states like jhāna a practitioner may reduce the distracting symbols enough to see through them…and if he is extremely adept he may even be able to continue seeing the underlying reality of consciousness even after he has gotten up from the meditation seat and has started thinking and making noise again. Hence the Zen concept of “Zen in the marketplace” being much superior to Zen on the meditation cushion, and the old saying that the meditation hall can resound with the shouts of the master and blows from his stick may fall like rain, yet his mind abides in stillness and emptiness.
This ultimate reality, this thing in itself of consciousness, is what some sages and mystics may call God, or Brahman, or the One Mind, or Tao. In an invalid and futile attempt to put the unsayable into words, it is infinite and formless, without distinctions, and contains within it all possibilities; but again, all attempts to put ultimate reality into words must fail. It is infinite and formless and without multiplicity because distinct finite forms are just ape mental constructs used as gimmicks for making sense of our (illusory) environment, to allow us to navigate a way through life, as discussed by Kant. (But by the same token, “infinity,” “formlessness,” and “oneness” are also just perceptual symbols, and not infinite or formless at all.) Thus it should be no surprise when a mystic of a theistic religion or disposition has this experience in a relatively pure way, this merging with a formless infinity containing all possibilities, he does not hesitate to call it God, or the spirit of God, or the presence of God.
This formless ultimate reality is always with us, of course, considering that reality is always Here and Now. It really can’t be anywhere far away—or if it is, it is Here and Now also. We simply don’t notice it because we are distracted by our symbolic perceptions and identify with them; and besides, what is empty and formless can’t be perceived. Ultimate reality to most of us is like wetness to a fish: It’s always wet, literally soaking in water, but doesn’t and can’t notice it.
Even existence and nonexistence are psychological constructs, as Buddhist philosophy suggests; and as Kant declared, and maybe demonstrated, space and time are merely perceptual symbols. Phenomenal existence, the realm of conventional truth, appears to require opposites held in some kind of kinetic equilibrium, and that applies to existence itself, as opposed to nonexistence—it must have a dualistic opposite to give it meaning, for it to be perceived as “real.” And an absolute which transcends this worldly scheme of things, like God for example, would be nondualistic, and neither “exists” nor “doesn’t exist” would really apply and stick. Thus even if we call the Kantian thing in itself God, still, “God exists” is invalid, and “God doesn’t exist” is also invalid. An infinite, formless Absolute is practically by definition Off the Scale, and beyond artificially generated dualistic opposites.
One could go further using Buddhist logic: God, or a formless, infinite Absolute, would be considered avyākata, or logically indeterminate. To say it exists is invalid; to say that it doesn’t exist is invalid; to say that it does and doesn’t exist is invalid; and to say that it neither does nor does not exist is invalid. So assuming for the sake of argument that Ultimate Reality is called God, still, from a human point of view theism is invalid, and, perhaps more to the point, atheism also is invalid. Even an extremely advanced mystic who meets God face to face could not logically assert God’s existence, to say nothing of arrogant materialists saying that He does not.