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The reality of Reality

Angel Desai's picture

Throughout the course of this past semester, the Biology 202 class has attempted to reach an understanding regarding absolute truth in the face of multiple realities. The division between an individual’s personal reality and some greater unifying factor is a topic which is widely discussed in Vedanta literature as well. More specifically, certain Vedic practices advocate the belief that the soul is misled by matter and trapped in a state of illusion.[1] It is only through self-understanding that an individual can advance towards unification with all other beings or the “beyond” of Western ideology. In previous papers, the issue of the self in relation to the immortal Self was discussed in the context of neurobiology and subsequent behavior. With the new information introduced in Biology 202 since that time, it is the hope that the topic of one reality versus many can be explored as an additional mechanism with which to approach the overarching theme of the self as interpreted by Vedic belief systems.

As established in the previous web paper, the I-function is an apparent pathway towards the unification of the self (or material aspects of an individual such as personality and desire) with the Self (the all-pervading soul of the universe). Within this framework, it is implied that the temporal functions of human beings are the product of false acceptance of physical matter. In other words, absolute reality as it exists for most people is in fact, an illusion. This concept is strongly supported in neurobiological terms as well- there can be no one truth because the nervous system constructs reality differently for each individual. There is a slight distinction here however, that must be addressed. For Vedanta followers, the world itself is not an illusion. Rather, it is the personal experiences of each individual that is considered to be artificial. As Lord Krishna states in the second teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, “When he renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace. This is the place of the infinite spirit; achieving it, one is freed from delusion; abiding in it even at the time of death, one finds the pure calm of infinity.”[2] In effect, the Gita teaches the devotee to regard the material world as undesirable both because it inhibits true self-understanding and prevents access to an ultimate truth. This is slightly confounding because it is at this point that certain Vedic beliefs diverge from neurobiological considerations. More specifically, this course has established that the material world is in a sense, “all” that is there to work with. As discussed in class, our interactions with each other and our surroundings comprise the totality of existence. For practitioners of Vedic philosophy, the material world is a temporary, illusory form that must be overcome to reach the ultimate truth. To resolve this apparent division, we can consider the question of “one view versus many.” For some, Western ideology assumes that there is one reality that exists, but as individuals our world views distort that truth. Others suggest that there is no overarching reality, but various viewpoints emanating from each individual. The former is interesting in that it expresses the core point that Vedic literature tries to emphasize. More particularly, there is a parallel between the structure of reality and its internalization by the observer.

If such a viewpoint is assumed, attempts to tie together Vedic philosophy with neurobiological explanations become slightly complicated. At its core, neurobiology suggests that mechanisms such as lateral inhibition organize the nervous system to provide an informed guess about our surroundings.[3] The “picture in the head” acts as a function of evolutionary adaptation. If these observations are taken to have some validity, then perhaps it is possible to assume that, as Plato described, one reality does exist, but the extent to which it is accepted by each individual varies based on biological considerations. This distortion of reality is exactly what many Vedic scribes believed to be the essence of human spirituality and existence. While the world appears to be diverse and multiform, for certain Hindu practitioners, everything is actually interconnected.[4] The term Maya refers to the apparent variety perceived by all individuals, a concept which can be connected to the biological idea of multiple realities as a consequence of evolution. An important distinction here is that in some ways, Vedic literature advocates a step past the simple acknowledgment of different realities. Unlike neurobiology, the mere recognition of the material world as the source of “multiple worlds” is not a sufficient or desirable interaction with an individual’s external environment. Ultimate understanding lies in the realization that the Self (and not the self which we associate with personality, the ego, or the body) exists in unity with Brahman, or the absolute reality.

While Brahman is difficult to define, it is in essence a descriptor for the source of the material universe.[5] The details here are not essential to develop the connection between neurobiology and Hindu beliefs however it is interesting to note that in this sense, Plato’s vision of the world and Vedic literature appear to agree. The Hindu framework takes this dualistic vision one step further by explaining how to surpass distortion experienced by the mind and what the greater beyond entails. “When he perceives the unity existing in separate creatures and how they expand from unity,” the Gita states, “he attains the infinite spirit. Beginningless, without qualities, the supreme self is unchanging; even abiding in a body…it does not act, nor is it defiled.”[6] While the existence of an ultimate reality has been debated here, the question of whether we as individuals would want to reach that ultimate state or if it is even useful for our own progress as a species remains a valid question. Moreover, it is essential that in answering these queries the parallels of these beliefs with actions of the nervous system be considered as well.

From the view of a Hindu practitioner, the issue of “usefulness” in regards to unification between the material self and the immortal Self is addressed by stating that the alternative is worse. Suffering is caused by our earthly attachment to matter, including the idea that reality exists as each individual perceives it. Attaining the knowledge of the Self allows us to transcend this illusory state of reality.[7] Rather than dwell on this concept in such terms, it may be more beneficial to consider a microscopic view that includes the I-function. Vedic conviction dictates that personal reality must be overcome in order to achieve Brahman. Rather than imply that this final “leap of faith” should be accomplished in one step, perhaps the I-function can be seen as an intermediary. As established in the previous web paper as well as in the Biology 202 course, if the I-function is treated as a process that is in a state of flux, then it can be suggested that the I-function revises self-conception on a consistent basis. As more observations are taken from an individual’s environment, reality is actually mediated and transformed by the self. Perhaps an ultimate truth does exist as advocated by Vedic scholarship, and experience (or new input!) directs our personal distortions towards some greater awareness. In some ways, Vedic literature promotes such thinking by explaining how certain practices help the individual conquer the self and reach a state of inner tranquility. This proposition is substantiated by everyday encounters with other people whose experiences or personal philosophies seem to uncannily match our own. In some ways, the idea that as individuals we are striving towards some similar goal through the very act of living and inputting is preferable to certain spiritual dictates that advise asceticism and denial. While it is clear that no one path or conception of reality is the absolute representation of truth, it is the constant pursuit of a common experience that provides continual progress towards understanding the shared realities between all of its observers.






[1] The Heart of Hinduism,, Accessed 4/30/08.

[2] The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), p. 39.

[5] Hindu Website,, Accessed 4/30/08.

[6] Bhagavad Gita, p. 119.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and the Bhagavad Ghita: where's reality?

Its interesting that in one direction there is illusion that needs to be overcome to see infinite reality and in the opposite direction there is .... distortion that needs to be overcome to see objective reality. Maybe there's another direction?
"The mystic holds that there is some way the world is and that this way is not captured by any description. For me, there is no way that is the way the world is; and so of course no description can capture it. But there are many ways the world is, and every true description captures one of them. The difference between my friend and me is, in sum, the enormous difference between absolutism and relativism.

Since the mystic is concerned with the way the world is and finds that the way cannot be expressed, his ultimate response to the question of the way the world is must be, as he recognizes, silence. Since I am concerned rather with the ways the world is, my response must be to construct one or many descriptions. The answer to the question "What is the way the world is? What are the ways the world is?" is not a shush, but a chatter." 

Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 1978

Maybe "what the brain has evolved to do is not to lessen its imperfections in painting pictures of "reality", but rather to make of the ambiguous information it has candidate unambiguous paintings, not one but many, which it can then test by additional observations"? A chatter, rather than either a shush or an objective truth?