Dialectical Spiritualism: Rene Descartes

BY: SUN STAFF - 18.1 2017

Conversations wtih HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, excerpted from  Dialectical Spiritualism: A Vedic View of Western Philosophy.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Hayagriva dasa: In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes writes: "The power of forming a good judgement and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men.... God has given to each of us some light with which to distinguish truth from error." Is he speaking of the Supersoul, or another form of intellection?

Srila Prabhupada: The Supersoul is one thing, and reasoning is another. Still, reasoning should be there. For instance, through reasoning, we can understand that the body is just a lump of matter composed of skin, bone, muscle, blood, stool, urine, and so forth. Through our reasoning power, we can ask if a combination of these ingredients can bestow life, and we can come to understand that life is different from a lump of matter.

Syamasundara dasa: For Descartes, all truth can be derived from reason, which is superior to and independent of sense experience. Knowledge is deductible from self-evident concepts, or innate, necessary ideas. In other words, he disagrees with those empiricists who believe that truth can be derived only from sense experience.

Srila Prabhupada: We cannot understand God through sense experience, but through our reason we can understand that there is God. We can reason, "I have my father, and my father also has a father, who has a father, and so on. Therefore there must be a Supreme Father." God is the supreme and original Father, and by reasoning we can understand that He exists. Similarly, we can also understand by reasoning that God is the creator. We see that everything has a maker, a creator, and we can conclude that this great cosmic manifestation also has a creator. This is reasoning, but rascals speculate that in the beginning there was a big chunk of matter and an explosion, or whatever, that started the universe. But if there were an explosion, there must have been some explosive, and if there were some explosive, there must have been some worker to set it off. Otherwise, how did the chunk of matter explode? Through our reason we can perceive that everything has some creator or cause.

Hayagriva dasa: Descartes claims that good sense or reason is by nature equal in all men, but doesn't the reasoning power differ?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, otherwise why is one man intelligent and another ignorant? When, through reasoning, one concludes that the living force within the body is different from the body itself, he is on the human platform. If he considers life to be nothing more than a combination of material ingredients, he remains an animal. That is the verdict of the Vedas.

yasyatma-buddhih kunape trl-dhatuke 
sva-dhih kalatradisu bhauma ijya-dhih 
yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhicij 
janesv abhijnesu sa eva go-kharah

"A human being who identifies this body made of three elements with his self, who considers the by-products of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of birth worshipable, and who goes to the place of pilgrimage simply to take a bath rather than meet men of transcendental knowledge there, is to be considered like an ass or a cow." (Bhag. 10.84.13) If one thinks that he is the body, he is no better than an animal. So through reasoning, we can conclude that the soul is not this and not that. This is the neti-neti process. We then have to continue our search and ask, "What is soul? What is Brahman?" We can then conclude that Brahman is the origin of matter and that matter is developed by the soul. That is the Vedic conclusion in the Vedanta-sutra. The act of sex, for instance, cannot bring about pregnancy unless a soul is present. People may have sex many times, and no pregnancy may result. You may sow a seed, and a tree may develop, but if you fry that seed before sowing it, it will not fructify because it is unsuitable for the soul to remain. The conclusion is that the soul is the basis of matter. Although the soul cannot be perceived materially, it is certainly there. Yet its presence can be understood by its symptoms, which are consciousness and bodily development. Just as the individual soul is the living force that gives life to the body, God is the supreme living force that gives life to the entire cosmic manifestation.

Syamasundara dasa: Descartes's method involved searching within one's self for a basis of truth. That basis he found to be self-consciousness. He concluded that first of all, I exist, and then reasoned that God exists necessarily.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. I exist, my father exists, my grandfather exists, and so on; therefore God exists. In Sanskrit, we use the word ahankara, "I am." At the present moment, we exist, but our conception of existence is incorrect. We are thinking, "I exist through my body." We do not understand how it is we exist. By reasoning and understanding, we have to come to know that we are spirit soul and not the body. It is the spirit soul that exists. By reasoning, we can understand that we existed as a child, as a young man, and as an old man, and that after the body is finished, we will continue to exist. I still exist, and I have passed through many bodies, and by reasoning I can conclude that even after this body is destroyed, I will continue to exist. It is stated in Bhagavad-gita:

na jayate mriyate va kadacin 
nayarh bhutva bhavita va na bhuyah 
ajo nityah sasvato 'yam purano 
na hanyate hanyamane sarire

"For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain." (Bg. 2.20) Even when the body is annihilated, the spirit soul continues. We can arrive at this conclusion through experience, and our experience can be confirmed by the sastras. This can also be concluded by reason. If this is supported in so many ways, it is a fact.