Sri Aurobindo's - 'The Life Divine' - The Human Aspiration - Chapter I (2000, Super School Auroville) - Session ii (10 July 2000)

Yesterday I spoke to you about the argument of Parmenides. This argument is a good exercise for philosophical thinking, so I shall dwell a little upon it. You know as students of philosophy there is a need for you to learn the art of argument. All philosophical statements in the world have taken the form of argumentation. So we should first understand what is the need for argumentation, secondly, what is the art of formulating an argument, and thirdly, how to evaluate an argument. We shall do all three things regarding this particular example.

First, what is the need for argumentation? There are situations where arguments are not necessary. For example we sit around this tree, and I make a statement: "Here is a large tree before us". We all see it and I don't need to make any argument and say that now a formulation is necessary. Everybody agrees, so there is no need for an argument. In other words, whenever there is a statement, which one can verify in a common manner there is no need for an argument. You can make a statement and there is no argument—the statement only describes what is seen. But suppose we are all blind and sitting around the tree, a visitor enters, who has good sight, he enters and he says: "Oh you are all sitting under the shade of a tree!" then we were all surprised. And here, there is a need for that person to convince us that we are indeed sitting under a shade of a tree. If someone among us tells him "How do you know that we are sitting under a shade of a tree?" His first answer will be: "It is obvious!" Because it is obvious to him, he will say, "It is obvious". This is the first statement. This also is an argument. The statement "it is obvious" is also an argument. Why? Because it is not obvious to us, therefore it is an argument.

Most of the philosophers have made a lot of arguments, and when you dig deeper and deeper and deeper, you will find at the bottom, they say: "It is obvious". You may not find it immediately on the surface, but when you dig deeper, you will find at the base there is this statement "it is obvious".

I was at one time, a student of Bertrand Russell; I used to read Russell a lot. I was greatly impressed by him. Even today I admire him for many things, although I have left him and turned to other lines of thought. After a lot of understanding pursuing his line of thought I discovered that his whole philosophy is based upon one statement: "It is obvious"—I am now formulating his argument—"that complex sentences, complex objects, complex situations, can all be reduced by analysis to simple statements, simple situations, simple sentences". In other words, his whole philosophy is based upon a statement that however complex the world is, it is obvious that this complexity is nothing but a combination of simple things. Meaning by which, that simple doesn't consist of complex. In other words he says: It is obvious that simple doesn't consist of complexity. This is his basic argument. It is the basic argument because even this statement can be questioned. It seems to be very obvious. At a later stage I will tell you what is the meaning of simple, and it is not as simple as we think it to be. If you go into the depth of reality, there is no such thing in the world as simple. Russell said that everything that is complex can be reduced ultimately to simple. If you have a complex building, you can say ultimately this complex building has been constructed out of simple bricks. So many bricks put together give a structure to them, therefore the structure is complex but this complexity is a result of simple bricks. It seems logically clear, clean, neat. But let us take a simple leaf of a tree. No leaf is simple. Every leaf has so much complexity in it. And you can further argue that even that complexity can be reduced to simplicity. Unfortunately you don't find anywhere in the world, anything that is simple. And yet Russell says, it is obvious that complex must consist of simple.

Similarly, you go to many other philosophical systems—I am only giving you one example that a man who comes from outside into an assembly of blind people who are sitting under a tree which is large and shady, would say "it is obvious that you are sitting under the shade of a tree". This is his answer: "it is obvious". But you may like however to be convinced that we are really sitting under a tree which has a large shade over us. Therefore, in India there is a very famous story, of an elephant and seven blind people. It is a very famous story, a parable told all over the country. And each philosophy student is told this story. The reason why is because it is assumed that we are all blind in this world. Philosophy has no reason to exist, in the way in which it exists today, if we were not blind. The assumption behind every philosophical thinking is that we are all blind. If our eyesight was absolutely clear and clean and we could see the world within and without then argument would not be necessary. It would be simply obvious. But because we are blind, because, even with physical eyes open, our mental eyes are blind, our experiential eye is blind, our sensitivity is blind, emotionally we are blind, in many ways we are blind, therefore there is a need to state what some people think they are seeing. Anybody who feels, he sees makes a statement. To him it is obvious but to the others it is not.

The story of the blind men and the elephant is that an elephant is put before the blind people and each blind man observes by touching and then describing. One who takes hold of the leg or the foot says it is like a trunk, but one who touches the ear feels it is like a vessel or a fan, and so on. If every part of the elephant is taken into account by each one touching it separately you will get seven different descriptions and none of them are correct. And yet, for every one whatever is said is obvious.

So, I was asking you the question why there is a need of an argument at all. Behind every philosophical activity the assumption is that there is a huge world around us. This huge world is full of phenomena. There is one statement which you can make because of these phenomena which cannot be doubted, and it is this: "There are events". This is one statement which you can make and you can say "it is obvious" and perhaps even the blind people will accept this proposition: there are events. Indubitable statement, you cannot doubt it at all. But having said "there are events", doesn't give us any wisdom, it doesn't give us any kind of a clue. What kind of events, interconnection of events, interconnection of these events with you, interconnection of all this with the totality, if there is any totality at all. These questions are not answered merely by saying "there are events". And philosophy has even a deeper question to ask, not merely to see that so many events exist in the world or happen in the world, but what is the meaning or the significance of these events.

You remember when we were defining what is philosophy, and I now turn to the one who has written down the definition; (to Anandamayi) I don't know if your definition includes this particular word, tell me whether it includes this word or not. Philosophy is a quest for knowledge. Tell me... [Anadamayi reads:]

"Philosophy is a quest for knowledge pertaining to all domains, including the quest for perfection both individual and collective, which results in the formulation of an idea/ideas pertaining to the totality which includes all that we see and experience or think of, and beyond that which may, may not exist, in search of the presence or absence of the meaning of all, beyond all and all particulars."

The word `meaning' is present in that definition; therefore it is a correct definition. The essence of a philosophical quest is to find the meaning. First of all we have to ascertain what are the facts, what are the events, their inter-relationships, what is behind them, whether there is any ultimate reality or not which you do not see but which is there as a source which may exist, may not exist, and you search for whether there is a meaning in it or not. This being the meaning of philosophical enquiry, whenever any statement is made it takes the form of an argument. This is the necessity of argument, and the reason why all philosophical books abound with arguments. Sometimes people who are not familiar with the idea of philosophy get tired of philosophy because they say, "Oh! It is nothing but meaningless debate, meaningless argumentation coming to no conclusion. It has no sense in it." But that is because, it is not understood that philosophy is a very serious enquiry in which you should not become tired if you really want to discover, to find out the meaning. If you don't want to find the meaning and you are satisfied with what you are, don't enter into philosophy. But if you want to find out the meaning, and since we are blind, and since there are many events happening, there is a need to interconnect them. And because in the beginning of our search we happen to be blind we are likely to be struck only by one aspect rather than another aspect. Therefore if we are struck with that particular aspect you need to be told there is another aspect also. And when you say there is another aspect also, this statement takes the form of an argument. Argument basically is nothing but stating one aspect of data and trying to join with it another aspect of data in a meaningful manner. The minimum is that there should be a connection on one aspect of data with another aspect of the data.

You know the meaning of data? Data means that which is given. It comes originally from a Sanskrit word: datam. That which is given. From datam comes data. Datam is singular and data is plural. Given facts are called data. Because normally we are seized with one set of data and we do take into account another set of data, philosophy makes you aware that you need to connect one set of data with another set of data. But even these two sets of data are not enough. There is a third set of data, a fourth set of data, a fifth set of data, there is plenty of data, and that makes the whole complexity of philosophical argument.

Having done this kind of exercise to begin with, you come across certain data which are of such a nature that they are all comprehensive, knowing which all things are known. You can have such data, knowing which all the data can be known. This kind of thing also happens in our search. It is like a key. You may have so many rooms in a big castle and suddenly you find a key and when you find this key you can open the whole and everything is open to you.

Parmenides' argument which I gave you last time is a peculiar one of this kind. It is an argument which gives you absolute certainty. You read that argument again, and we shall see what kind of certainty is involved in that argument. Let me read out once again: "Thou canst not know what is not'', you can see the direct statement; "Thou canst not know what is not", this is a certainty; you can never know that which doesn't exist, you can know only that which exists. It is a very sweeping statement. You can be sure of this statement. And therefore he has put a parenthesis: "That is impossible". Absolutely certain, there is no question of doubt about it. So he picked up such a statement, such a datam that is clinching. This is what happens when you become a true philosopher. So many facts are given to you and you are able to pick up one datum which is sweeping. That is why people like to read philosophers, because philosophers are able, after a lot of thinking, after tremendous exercises of dealing with data, to pick up some such statements, and they are able to formulate them. This is the peculiarity of this argument: "Thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be." It is a very simple statement actually, it says: if you examine your nature, you will always examine data in the light of your thought, it is the first thing that is said. Whatever you are going to decide, whatever you are going to judge, whatever you are going to know, it says first of all, it is by the instrument of thought that you will do it. This is the finding of the philosophers that thought is so constituted that it can only focus upon that which exists. That which does not exist can never be applied to thought. Such is the nature of the thought. It is the key. Now this is an irrefutable statement because it describes the very nature of thought. So if you can find out the nature of thought, which is the instrument of knowledge at least at our present level, then you can be sure of this statement. For thought can be applied only to that which exists.

The second statement which is made—although yesterday I put it to you with some kind of force, at this next stage now when you are more mature today than yesterday—this second statement, when you examine it you will find fault with it, although it looks very much convincing and very clinching too, but you will find fault with it. It says: "How, then, can what is going to be in the future, or how could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not. Nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of. The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same for you cannot find thought without something that is as to which it is uttered." This third statement is only a repetition of the first statement, it is clinching, but the second statement, the middle argument, although it may seem to be only an elucidation of the first, says something more and it is illegitimate. I will not ask you now to find out where this illegitimacy is. Let it dwell in your mind for some time, we shall come to this second statement and find out where there is a fallacy in this argument. It is an argument which seems only a restatement of the first, but it is not. It is something much more.

I leave it to you now and come back to the basic question which I raised with you: what is the need of an argument? How do you formulate an argument and how do you evaluate an argument? These are the three things that every student of philosophy should learn. My first answer is: you need to argue because even though we are sure that there are events in the world; there are phenomena in the world, our perception of these data is limited, and different individuals perceive different data and each one claims that his perception of data is obvious. And therefore, when they sit in an assembly like ourselves now, there is this comparison of data and while comparing the data there is the birth of an argument.

These arguments are of different kind. This argument of Parmenides is what is called a logical argument. There can be many other kinds of arguments, but this one is a logical argument. In larger terms it is called an epistemological argument. You remember I told you some time ago of the study of epistemology. These words don't worry if you don't remember, because you will come across them again and again and in any case will learn them. So don't try to memorise them. Each time I shall explain these terms because they need to be repeated. Epistemology is a study of the means of knowledge, of the nature of knowledge, of the standard of knowledge, of criteria of knowledge. It is a study of why we call something knowledge at all. How do we decide this is knowledge? What are the conditions that should be fulfilled for any statement to be called a statement of knowledge? If a statement consists of an error surely we will not call it knowledge. There must be standards by which you can say that this statement is to be called knowledge. It must satisfy certain criteria. The study of this domain is called epistemology.

Logic is a part of epistemology. Why? Because logic states that thinking or thought is one of the processes of knowledge. You arrive at knowledge by a process of thinking. That is a claim, whether it is right or wrong is a different matter. The claim is that thought is a means of knowledge. And thought, if it follows certain criteria, is bound to give a correct knowledge, without error. That is the study of Logic. Logic says that thought, if it follows certain standards, is bound to be correct. Because correct, therefore knowledge. I had given you an example earlier, a very simple example: "All planets rotate around the sun". This is a statement which we know is valid; because it is a fact, let us say it is obvious. Now you reverse it: "Therefore all that rotates around the sun are planets". Is it a correct statement? No. Why, because this does not follow the criteria of correct thinking. You are reversing the statement; in logic it is called the process of conversion. A statement is given, then you convert it, that is to say you make it reverse, as I did just now. "All planets rotate around the sun; therefore all that rotates around the sun are planets." This statement is not correct; there is an error in it. What is the error? Logic points out what is the error in this kind of conversion. I shall tell you afterwards what the error is exactly but we know that it is not correct because there are comets also which rotate around the sun. Therefore it is a fact that this statement is not correct.

So, logic is a science in which criteria are laid down as to when a process of thinking is correct or when it is not correct. All men are mortal—convert it—all mortals are men. Is it correct? No. There is something in this conversion which has gone wrong. Logic finds out what is wrong in it. Very often when people argue heatedly they make this kind of mistake. They just put one statement, then they reverse it. And they try to prove to you their statement is true. But if you are a good logician, a good student of epistemology you will say: "Please wait, don't be heated, argue very quietly, let us see your statement, we shall examine whether your argument is valid or not." So, converting a statement is also called an argument. Making a statement and converting it is an argument. An argument is manipulation of thought which deserves to be examined. This is the meaning of an argument. You start with a process of thinking and then you manipulate that process of thinking. You can manipulate any process of thinking in many ways. A is equal to B, B is equal to C, C is equal to D, D is equal to E, E is equal to F, therefore A is equal to F. You are manipulating the whole process of thinking. There are many other ways of manipulating thinking. Epistemology or logic tells you whether that manipulation can be properly examined, and after examination you can arrive at a judgment whether it is without error or there is error in it. An argument is a manipulation of a thought process which deserves to be examined, which is to be tested.

Now this particular statement that I made from Parmenides, is also a kind of manipulation of thought process. Parmenides found out that all processes of thought, whenever you think, always have an object. Thought does not exist without an object. It is one conclusion, one obvious proposition, which has been found out by Parmenides. It is on that basis that this argument is now formulated. And you examine it, and the peculiarity of this examination is that the moment you examine it, it is asserted. To examine you have to say: "No this is not true". Starting point of the examination is "This is not true". If it is not true, then you have to find a thought which has no object. But the moment you think there is always an object. Therefore this statement is reasserted by itself. And this is one of those prized arguments in the history of philosophy. You will find this kind of argument repeating itself in different forms, but the same argument comes again and again. As I told you in the twentieth century Bertrand Russell at the end of the examination of this argument says "I postpone this examination".

Even a dialectic argument is logical in character, but not vice-versa. All dialectical arguments are logical, but all logical arguments are not necessarily dialectical. So, there is a difference between the two. All arguments, in a certain sense you might say, not only dialectical arguments, all arguments in philosophy are logical or they ought to be logical, but therefore all logical arguments are not necessarily dialectical.

What is the nature of a dialectical argument? I shall now give an example of a dialectical argument. If you open The Life Divine and see the second paragraph of the first chapter you will find an example. You saw that the first paragraph consisted of two arguments. One is a logical argument and the second argument in the first paragraph is a historical argument. Let us see where the logical argument is in the first paragraph. We had pointed out yesterday: "The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts is also the highest which thought can envisage", this statement is a logical argument. It is in the nature of thought. The nature of thought is such that at its highest it will affirm whatever is the content of the earliest preoccupation of awakened thought. Yesterday I explained to you that this statement is one of the most important statements in the paragraph. It is a logical argument. The earliest preoccupation of man is God. God is that which exists thoroughly. That which exists thoroughly is the highest that thought can envisage—unquestionably. Therefore this argument is a logical argument. The rest of the statements which are made in this paragraph are historical arguments. It brings the historical data—what are the historical data? You examine the earliest man, examine the periods of skepticism, examine the present man, his present preoccupations, his scientific enquiry, the conclusions of the present enquiry and the conclusions that emerge out of it. Because of the difference of nature of the two arguments you will find that these two arguments have different emphases. The logical argument is asserted in terms of certainty. The historical argument is presented in terms of probability. You will see that Sri Aurobindo uses the word 'seems', isn't it? Then the word ‘promises'. These two words, ‘promises' and ‘seems', are words of probability because these two statements come within the context of historical argument and the conclusions of historical arguments cannot be definite. This is the rigor of the first paragraph as you see it. Because historical conclusions cannot be absolutely certain. Therefore, whenever you make an historical argument you have to remember, as a philosopher, not to make a dogmatic statement of certainty. Whenever you state an historical argument your conclusions must have seems, probably, etc. Don't make assertive statements if your argument is historical. You can make a statement in certainty form if your argument is logical in character.

We come now to a third kind of argument, which I told you, is dialectical in character. Let us read this: "These persistent ideals of the race are at once the contradiction of its normal experience and the affirmation of higher and deeper experiences which are abnormal to humanity and only to be attained in their organised entirety by a revolutionary individual effort or an evolutionary general progression." It is a very long sentence, a very difficult sentence, therefore it deserves to be read three or four times, and we can divide the sentence into three or four parts. First of all it says: "These persistent ideals". God. Light, Freedom, Immortality, are the ideals which he calls persistent. Why persistent? Because throughout the ages they present themselves. Even after periods of skepticism they again reaffirm themselves. These ideals are persistent ideals, they come again and again. These persistent ideals of the race are at once the contradiction of its normal experience. This is an argument in the sense that you are given a fact, and this fact is presented to you for examination. Therefore it is an argument. What is the examination you have to make? Sri Aurobindo says: these ideals are contradicted by our normal experience. In our normal experience we always find matter and matter. Whether you turn this way or that way or that way you find nothing like God, you don't find Light, you don't find Immortality, you don't find Freedom. Our normal experience is simply of matter which is dark, matter which always binds you, it is a fetter, and matter is something that is perishing all the time, it dissolves all the time. So the natural experience of matter, which is all our normal experience, does not give you any kind of a clue of God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. These persistent ideals of the race are a contradiction of the normal experience. But this sentence is not complete; it is only a part of the sentence. But they are also affirmations, they are contradictions on one hand of the normal experience, but they are affirmations of another experience, of higher and deeper experiences. That is to say if however you make an effort to go beyond your normal experience, then in those abnormal conditions you will find God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. They are affirmations of your deeper experiences. These deeper experiences come to you when? They can be attained in their organised entirety… Sometimes you do gain something, if you read the accounts of many people's experiences, you find them writing suddenly that I felt somebody was standing behind me. This is an ordinary experience of many people. You are alone and suddenly you find the presence of somebody around you. Sometimes. But to find the presence of God constantly, that experience in its entirety you can have only by two methods: by a revolutionary individual effort.

You know, there is a story of Sri Ramakrishna. He wanted to have a real perception of the Divine Mother, of Kali, and he was making a lot of effort, but he was not succeeding. So one day he decided and told Kali: "If you do not appear before me, I shall cut off my head." Such a tremendous revolution in his being! "Why should I not see Kali? If she is there I should be able to see her!" Now this is a revolutionary individual effort. Not to be recommended, but sometimes desperation is so great, if your aspiration is so great that you can say: "All right now, do or die! Either I have it or I don't want to exist. What is all this." Then a revolution comes into your being and by revolutionary effort you may have this experience. Or else, by evolutionary general progression of mankind, it grows gradually. As humanity develops more and more, we should also benefit from it gradually and have this experience more easily. So these are the two methods by which you can have this experience.

So now let us repeat the whole argument: These persistent ideals are a contradiction of our ordinary experience, but they are affirmation of higher experiences, deeper experiences which can come to you either by revolutionary individual effort or by evolutionary general progression of mankind. It is a very simple statement. These ideals are a contradiction if you are only looking at ordinary experience, if these are your only data, then from those data you will say: All this is nonsense, talking of God or Light. Show me where is He? So we agree that if you limit yourself only to your present blindness, then you will contradict what I am saying that there are ideals of God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. But against it I give another argument, that they are affirmed at another level of deeper experiences. So something which is affirmed at one level, something else that is affirmed at another level and when you put them side by side it is called a dialectical argument. Something that is stated at one level and something that is stated at another level and you compare them by relationship of negation and affirmation is called a dialectical argument. That is to say, if you want to examine it very logically, the usual form of a dialectical argument is the following: if you limit yourself to ordinary experience the conclusion is denial of these ideals of God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. This is the first statement, if you limit yourself. It starts with if. All dialectical arguments can more easily be seen to be dialectical if you put them in this form. If you limit yourself to the ordinary level of experience, then the experience of God, Light, Freedom and Immortality will be contradictory—negation. If you enter into deeper and higher experiences, then the conclusion is you will affirm God, Light, Freedom and Immortality. As a result, if you start with one proposition, one consequence, if you start with another proposition you will arrive at another proposition, and both of them will be contradictory to each other.

One of the very simple dialectical arguments is: "If reality is one, it cannot be many. If reality is many it cannot be one." A proposition from which you derive a thesis, another proposition from which you derive antithesis. You are able to derive a thesis and an antithesis which impels you to find something which will synthesise. So, thesis, antithesis and synthesis, any argument which takes this form is called a dialectical argument. Normally you will find in human thought whenever it examines data, there is a tendency to arrive at a thesis, to contrast it with antithesis and then to be impelled to derive a synthesis. This is one of the best ways of educating young people. If you want to develop the thought power of individuals, always give them statements from where they will derive a conclusion, then give another statement so they will derive another conclusion, then you will find that both are opposed to each other and you ask how to synthesise. This whole paragraph is actually a dialectical argument. We have read only the four lines, but if read in detail, the whole paragraph is a dialectical argument.