Chapter 3: Beyond mind: The future of psychology as a science – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Beyond mind: The future of psychology as a science

Kundan Singh


Impressed by the apparent potential of physics to explain, predict and control natural phenomena, Western psychology, rooted in a Newtonian-reductionist framework and guided by the philosophy of naïve Realism, embraced a methodology identical to the one employed by the natural sciences, to generate universal, rational, objective and value-free laws of human behaviour. This gave Western psychology the much-coveted status of science. However, as far as the current status of psychology as a discipline goes, there are numerous psychological schools, all claiming scientific ‘objectivity’. Trying to find the reason why there are so many different ‘objective’ psychological truths, this chapter critically examines the methodological and epistemological assumptions behind mainstream psychological research. It narrates the problems associated with the objectivity of psychological knowledge largely by drawing from the critique of science by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and Karl Popper which emerged from their analysis of the history of science. Kuhn’s view leads one to identify the crucial role that paradigm plays in scientific research. An extension of his arguments suggests that psychological knowledge is relative with respect to person, time, culture and paradigm. A meta-analysis of the epistemological conclusion gives birth to a peculiar situation where opposite categories like relative and absolute, objectivity and subjectivity, the truth and falsity of facts co-exist.

The second half of the chapter examines the future of psychology as a science against this impasse generated by the recognition of relativism and the aforementioned paradox, and what should be the true foundation for Indian psychology. Vedānta and Mahayana Buddhism have long ago recognized that the intellectual, logical and discursive pursuit of human knowledge ends in such kinds of cul-de-sac and impasse, and that such a recognition should necessitate a shift towards changing the modus operandi of our pursuit of knowledge. Mind is not the final summit in the evolution of mankind. There can be faculties other than mind which can be used to uncover nature’s truths, and it is not in the spirit of science to fall prey to scientism. Furthermore, this chapter, which draws substantially from the writings of Sri Aurobindo, discusses the possibility of a psychology which will be made possible by making a mystical exploration into the nature of Reality where forces invisible to the ordinary human eye, which nevertheless determine human behaviour, will be observed and known. Such psychology has been our Indian legacy. It is time that we recognize it and introduce its epistemological, metaphysical, and ontological underpinnings in academia.

Scientific concerns of modern psychology

Psychology’s identification with science is apparent from even a cursory glance at its textbooks, teaching programmes and emphasis on quantitative methods and objective stance toward psychological processes. Interestingly, throughout its disciplinary history, psychology has been defined in myriad ways. The early psychologists defined it as the study of consciousness, mind and mental activity. With the advent of Behaviourism at the turn of the century, due to its central concern with studying only the phenomena that could be objectively measured, psychology came to be described as the study of behaviour. This definition has featured in most psychology textbooks of the 1930s through the 1960s. The cycle has come full circle with the development of cognitive and humanistic/transpersonal psychology, as most current definitions of psychology make references to both behaviour and mental processes (Henley, Johnson & Jones, 1989; Ciccarelli & Mayer, 2006). Despite little variations, most definitions of psychology emphatically maintain and make it explicit that it is a science.

In the late nineteenth century, physics rooted in the Newtonian framework was solving puzzle after puzzle, and this led philosophers like J. S. Mill to believe that by subjecting human beings to a similar kind of experimentation, one could isolate cause and effect relationships in quantitative terms, which would then allow them to generate universal laws of human behaviour. However, more than a hundred years have elapsed since the first experimental lab was established by Wundt in 1879, and the outcome of this approach has been thousands of theories, mostly at variance with one another—all trying to explain behaviour and behavioural problems scientifically.

The crucial question, however, is how we can have so many theories of human nature—all claiming scientific objectivity—and yet be unable to explain anything conclusively. For none of the theorists claimed that their laws were not scientific—on the contrary they all claimed and documented that these laws were derived from an objective and an unbiased observation. Therefore, it becomes increasingly pertinent to review the central tenets of the methodology that have guided psychological research generating these theories, and consequently the pitfalls of this approach before we talk about a new paradigm of psychology—a paradigm which not only explains the cause of numerous ‘objective’ truths but also proposes an epistemology that does not contain the problems of the current and existent one.

Science was formalized by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. He gave two fundamental laws of science: induction and deduction, which form the basic tenets of positivism, a school of thought which has dictated the conduct of psychology from the past to the present. Positivism later developed into logical positivism, and together they are called the ‘received view of science’. Also, the birth of science was buttressed by a philosophy that has been called naïve Realism, which contends that there is an objective reality independent of the observer and that it can be understood by wresting out its secrets by a rational, unbiased and value-free observer. Consequently, the philosophy of realism created dualism such as subject and object, fact and value and sharp divisions like objective reality and subjective feelings.

The problem with induction, and challenges to objectivity

Induction starts with observation, stemming from an unprejudiced mind. The observations lead to singular statements—referring to a particular state of affairs at a particular time—that form the body of facts from which the laws and theories that constitute scientific knowledge can be derived. For the singular statements to culminate in universal laws, an important condition that needs to be met is that the number of observation statements forming the basis of generalization must be large (Chalmers, 1999). Following this, a finite set of singular statements would lead to a universal law. This was designated as inductive reasoning. Once the inductive laws are established, they can be tested at a different place and time. This is the process of deduction. The essential condition for the methodology of science is that the observation has to be value free, detached and objective.

As stated before, an important premise of induction is that the number of observations must be large. However, despite a large number of cases showing consistency, it is not guaranteed that the next event would not be contrary to it. Hence repeated observation cannot ultimately justify induction. For example, no matter how many white swans we may have encountered, it does not imply that all swans are white; the next that we encounter may be black (Popper, 1992). The inductive principle is considered as the mainstay of science by positivists. They maintain that if it is removed from the canon of science, science will loose its power to determine the nature of Truth. But how does one logically prove that the principle of induction is true in the first place and not an assumption. In other words, how does one ascertain that the inductive principle helps uncover the truth? It is argued that since it seems to operate well in a large number of cases, the premise is correct. This implies that one uses induction to justify induction and thus the argument assumes circularity. This is called the problem of induction (Popper, 1992).

The most serious drawback with induction is, however, with respect to its claim of objectivity in observation. It is a common experience that no two individuals register the same thing even if the respective images on their retinas are the same. One does not require much knowledge of psychology to know that the observer’s perception is determined by her expectations, belief, knowledge, inner state and psychological make-up.

The contention of an inductivist, that the true basis of scientific knowledge should proceed from an unbiased and unprejudiced mind, is further rendered absurd by the practice of the scientist to consider only those data that are relevant to her research. Since the idea of relevant and irrelevant is always present during the course of investigation, the possibility of an unbiased and unprejudiced observer takes a back seat. The investigator or scientist cannot but be an integral part of the research work and her subjectivity is bound to play an instrumental role in the outcome of the research. Thus, it can be safely said that the data do not have an independent existence; rather they are constructed within the confines and boundaries of a theory. In other words, data are theory-laden and objectivity is the last thing that scientists should claim. Expressing similar concerns, Feyerabend (1993, p. 12) writes:

The history of science, after all, does not consist of fact and conclusions drawn from facts. It also contains ideas, interpretation of facts, problems created by conflicting interpretations, mistakes, and so on. On closer analysis, we find that science knows no “bare facts” at all but the “facts” that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational.

For any meaningful research—or for that matter any research—to take place it is imperative that the researcher has some sort of a framework, otherwise how is she going to collect, organize and interpret the data. Data are essentially neutral and meaning needs to be ascribed to them. It is the paradigm with all its presuppositions, and, as previously acknowledged, the predispositions of the researcher—her psychology, her cosmological world-view, her language, her inner states, her beliefs, her expectations, and her previous knowledge of the world—help interpret the data. The mainstream discourse on science presumes that facts and values are separate. Feyerabend (1993, p. 51), however, using countless examples from the history of science, states that this is a myth:

The material which a scientist actually has at his disposal, his laws, his experimental results, his mathematical techniques, his epistemological prejudices, his attitude towards the absurd consequences of the theories which he accepts, is indeterminate in many ways, ambiguous, and never fully separate from the historical background. It is contaminated by principles which he does not know, and which, if known, would be extremely hard to test. Questionable views on cognition, such as the view that our senses, used in normal circumstances, give reliable information about the world, may invade the observation language itself, constituting the observation terms as well as the distinction between veridical and illusory appearance. As a result, observation languages may become tied to older layers of speculation which affect, in a roundabout fashion, even the most progressive methodology. (Italics in original)

The problem of objectivity is further compounded by the fact that ‘we speak more about our observation of the world rather than of the world, and we do this through a less than fully adequate language system. The linguistic limitation, by itself causes problems even if we could overcome other limitations’ (Baker, 1991, p. 12). This happens because language not only describes events but also creates a cosmology, a worldview that influences the thought, behaviour and perception of the user. When a child begins to learn a language, the worldview of her ancestors is passed onto her. The human mind begins to take many facts of life as givens, and the entire process may be totally unconscious. Her worldview begins to create what she may observe. Also, in order to be unprejudiced, one will have to abandon language itself, which will remove all ability to think, as a consequence of which the practice of science will stop before it begins. Writes Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of expression of that society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group…. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Cited in Whorf, 1962, p. 134)

In the study of high-energy particles, it has been found that particles cannot be understood as isolated entities but only in the context of their preparation and measurement. This means that the Aristotelian or the Newtonian idea of fundamental basic building blocks does not hold water anymore. Further, the classical distinction between subject and object—which was a natural outcome of the philosophy of naive Realism—has become vague as the observer has been found to be an integral part of the experiment. How an experimenter has set up an experiment and the measurement that she has decided to undertake determine the result of an experiment to a large extent. The observer is an inseparable part of the observation being made, or in other words, reality is not independent of the observer. Capra (1992, p. 78) observes:

The human observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational process, and the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of objective description of nature is no longer valid.

With the advent of the Relativity theory of Einstein, space and time, which appear to us as absolutes in our everyday experience, have been rendered relative with respect to the observer. The claim of the realists that objects like tables, chairs, bags, stones, and statues have absolute existence also does not hold true in the light of the theory of relativity, for it has been shown that the length of an object—consequently its shape too—is dependent on its motion with respect to the observer. The length of a rod shortens as its motion increases with respect to the observer. Modern physics has also exploded the myth of an absolute linearity of time. Time in the theory of relativity has a meaning only with respect to a frame of reference, for as the velocity relative to the observer increases, time intervals increase. In other words, time for two individuals moving at different velocities presents a different meaning.

To sum up, the preceding arguments indicate that for an individual to be without a bias or a value, she has to come from nowhere. Values and biases are implicit to the human condition and dichotomies like subject-object, and fact-value are a myth.

Sociology of knowledge: Objectivity demystified

Apart from values, inner expectations, knowledge, social position and observer’s bias, science embraces other dynamics as well, which can constrain an objective approach to reality. The spirit of science is to question, but science can easily lose its tenor by falling prey to scientism, a kind of dogmatism comparable to the fundamentalist aspect of any organized religion. Imbued with the spirit of questioning, Kuhn (1970) questioned the notion of science itself. His work is significant in that he has made it abundantly clear that science, like any other human activity, is a social activity which affects and is affected by the milieu in which it is embedded, and is guided by the sociological, economic, historical and political forces. According to him, science is practised by the communities of scientists and not by isolated men and women. To understand the workings of science, it is therefore imperative to understand the scientific community, its accepted and shared norms and beliefs. The complex nature of sociological factors that operate when any research is conducted can be appreciated with the help of Figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1. The sociological matrix of scientific research (Adapted from Danziger, 1990)

The innermost circle represents the immediate social condition in which research is conducted. The next circle represents the research community that has to accept the data as scientific knowledge. The outermost circle denotes the wider social context that embraces the research community. The investigators, the research community and the society are interconnected in a complex web of affairs, which has many dimensions.

If we analyse the dynamics of the inner circle—the immediate research conducted for generation of psychological knowledge—we find that the objectivity of psychological knowledge and the rationale of the Newtonian framework for psychology are seriously challenged. The experiments that are conducted are done by human beings on human beings, in sharp contrast to physical sciences where experiments are conducted on inanimate objects. With the recognition of ‘experimenter expectancy effects’ and ‘demand characteristics’, it can be inferred that the experimental results are co-determined by the social relationship between the experimenter and the subjects (Danziger, 1990).

As far as the research community is concerned, Kuhn (1970) points out that scientific practice is shaped by deep assumptions of the worldview of which the scientist may be unaware. For research to take place, the community must agree upon the goals, the methodologies and the valid subject matter in the context of research. The agreement on all these issues would constitute a framework or a paradigm. The paradigm has two components—disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars. The disciplinary matrix consists of a certain fundamental set of assumptions that are often unstated and not subject to empirical test. These assumptions form the basis for testing specific hypotheses. For example, reductionism states that the world can be understood by breaking it into smaller units until we arrive at a set of fundamental units. This is an assumption that is not subjected to any kind of an empirical test, and thus constitutes a portion of the disciplinary matrix of scientists who adhere to this belief. The other component of a paradigm is shared exemplars—the models for investigating new problems which include the methodology for pursuing the research. Kuhn (1970, p. 109) explains:

[Paradigm] functions by telling the scientist about the entities that nature does or does not contain and about the ways in which those entities behave. That information provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science’s continuing development. Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of research activity.... In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture.

The disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars, by constituting the paradigm, unconsciously trains a researcher to approach a problem in a specific way which gradually becomes her natural way. In this vein, Leahey (1991, p. 14) writes:

Neither source of data is comprehensible without training, yet once the scientist learns to interpret them, he or she will see them in those ways and no others. Thus training can act as a set of blinders, keeping the scientist from seeing in new ways. All observation and perception—whether scientific or not—is a matter of interpretation as numerous psychological examples have shown.

Thus, the generation and interpretation of data is contingent upon the paradigm in which the research is being conducted. Essentially data are neutral; they become facts when they are interpreted against a theory comprising a priori categories. For example, the measurements made with the Atwood machine would have meant nothing in the absence of Newton’s Principia. The meaning and interpretation of data change with a change in paradigm. For instance, with a change in electrical paradigm, what was a Leyden jar became a condenser. Kuhn has also shown that science is not as rational and objective as it is supposed. Indeed, scientific rationality is a matter of consensus. It involves unexamined biases and social interests like fame, fortune, love, loyalty and power of the investigator. More often than not, scientists following the same norms of disinterestedness, objectivity and rationality arrive at different conclusions. The history of science reveals that many competing theories exist before one paradigm becomes dominant even if all of them had arisen from experimentation and ‘disinterested’ observation.

Lyotard (1984) states that this is essentially a problem of legitimization. The question of good research and bad research is contingent upon the community of scholars deciding whether it is in harmony with the criteria of truth, of justice, of beauty—though these criteria are held to be universal to all humanity, they are specific to the larger culture or country to which the community belongs. Since research is a social activity, it is not free from politics. Feyerabend (1993, p. 163) puts this most beautifully:

Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of the scientific method, they want to universalize their rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal—argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying—to achieve their aims.

The history of science also demonstrates that scientific knowledge is temporally relative. What was considered once as science has been later rejected as superstition. By the same token, what constitutes scientific knowledge today, which has been extracted from nature by subjecting it to repeated investigation, may turn out to be error tomorrow under the influence of a different paradigm.1

A committed believer in science would say that this phenomenon has taken place because science is cumulative, and scientists have refined their theories in an effort to come closer to a truer and more accurate interpretation and description of nature. Kuhn disagrees and contends that instead of science being cumulative, it is revolutionary. A change in the paradigm changes the worldview of the scientist. Kuhn holds that it is difficult to demonstrate the superiority of one paradigm over another purely on ‘logical’ argument. The primary reason is that the proponents of the rival paradigms subscribe to a different set of standards and metaphysical assumptions. The rival paradigms are so incommensurable that no appeal to ‘rationality’ can settle the issue.

To complete this discussion let us quickly comment on the outermost circle depicted in Figure 3.1. The pursuit of knowledge is also intimately connected with the society in which it develops. It is being increasingly realized that each society has its own vision of reality that shapes the perception and thoughts of its inhabitants. This helps them to negotiate their life with different images, symbols, metaphors and institutions in a unique way that may be incommensurable with that of another society—all of these determine the subject matter of psychology or any discipline for that matter. Sociology of knowledge aptly discusses the social and historical forces that play a major role in the development of a subject. The anti-theistic ideas of scientific psychology are a case in point. Science, in order to establish its identity in post-medieval Europe, had to struggle against the Church which had usurped all powers to arbitrate every activity of humankind. It had restricted the freedom of inquiry and held courts of Inquisition to prosecute men like Galileo and Descartes and all those who differed from the scriptures. Moreover, it had waged holy wars in the name of religion and caused much bloodshed. Against this backdrop, science dissociated itself from anything that had to do with God or with supernatural forms of existence, resulting in a bias and dichotomous divide between religion and science which has not been plugged till date in the mainstream scientific circles (see Danziger 1990; Leahey 1991, for details).

Relativism and the paradox of self-referentiality

The line of argument discussed in the previous section very clearly explains why we have as many theories as we have psychologies. Psychologists are human beings as well, and they are very much grounded or caged in their own perspectives which determine the way they approach the problem of solving the enigmas of human behaviour. Psychologists see different facts because they ascribe different meta-structures of biases, theories, paradigms, cosmological worldviews, beliefs, culture, expectations, etc. to the raw data in order to interpret them. In other words, their individual humanness makes them see psychological issues differently. The aforementioned arguments also indicate that psychology and all forms of knowledge—there is an intimate connection between psychology and knowledge—are relative with respect to individuals, time, culture and paradigms. But incidentally, this is a statement suggesting an absolute truth. Paradoxically the conclusion, ‘Truth is relative’, harbours in it an absolute truth. Similarly, experimental psychology has devised experiments (for example, Joseph Jastrow’s famous duck–rabbit experiment), the results of which show that the perception of reality is necessarily subjective. But while stating this, it also makes a statement which embodies an objective validity. So a fact discovered by psychology becomes subjective and objective at the same time leading to a paradoxical and a peculiar situation. In other words, the pursuit of knowledge or Truth—which is the basis of any scientific investigation—becomes absolute and relative simultaneously.

A meta-analysis of Kuhn’s arguments culminates in a situation that is not different. One of the chief themes of his theses is that paradigms guide research in terms of observation and interpretation of data. If his premise is true—he has, of course supported it with a lot of evidence—then, by extension, it can be said that he has culled out data from the body of the history of science to support his theory that paradigms guide research. In other words, the data was collected with the theory—paradigm guides research—already in his mind. As soon as we recognize this, Kuhn’s arguments turn on themselves, thus assuming circularity. A paradoxical situation emerges again: Kuhn’s arguments are true and false at the same time. True because there is evidence to support his claim, and false because he contradicts himself by inviting his arguments on himself. Alternatively, his arguments have been designated as self-referential by his critics, and have been termed as self-refuting.

Secondly, Kuhn has cited evidence to show that facts and data have no meaning in themselves; they acquire meaning when interpreted against a theory or framework. There is an implicit circularity and paradox here too. By force of Kuhn’s arguments, it can be argued that the evidence that he has used to demonstrate the truth of his arguments is meaningful only against his contention that evidence has no meaning in the absence of a framework. Evidence lend support to his theory whereas a similar kind of contradiction as described above, and the fact of being oblivious to his own subjectivity, while attributing the crucial role of the scientist’s subjectivity in guiding research, renders Kuhn’s theory problematic. If the evidences of the other scientists are not sacrosanct, it can as well be said that Kuhn’s are not either.

In view of relativism, self-referentiality, circularities and paradoxes, does this mean that the pursuit of knowledge and psychology approaches a dead end? For the mainstream approach of finding the truths of human behaviour or psychology based in the classical distinction of subject and object, fact and value, and relative and absolute has come to a cul-de-sac. Does this mean that the impasse cannot be resolved? The answer is a resounding no if we begin to analyse the Indian spiritual traditions. Let us examine how these traditions offer an alternative paradigm to psychology research that goes beyond mind.

Beyond mind: Towards a new paradigm for psychology

The simultaneous existence of right and wrong, true and false, and relative and absolute that produces a paradox poses no problem for the Mādhyamika philosophers. In this section, we will examine how these paradoxes can be resolved, paving the way for intuitive knowing or for the study of psychology with consciousness as its subject matter.

Nāgārjuna, a second century Mādhyamika philosopher, stated that concepts, events and entities do not exist in isolation but exist in relation to one another. He further contends that concepts, events and entities called svabhāva, actually lack any intrinsic existence, and that any attempt to reduce them to having an independent status will lead to absurdity. According to Nāgārjuna, nothing exists in-itself and of-itself, and no concept has any meaning independent of a relation. This is the principle of pratītya samutpāda or dependent origination, and the main philosophy under which this is discussed is called śūnyavāda or śūnyatā or the doctrine of emptiness. Black and white, good and evil, valleys and mountains, friends and enemies are co-implicates. All contradictions and oppositions, seen from a slightly different perspective reveal that they are one and essentially whole. The opposites are not against each other but complement each other. Darkness is born out of light and day is born out of night. Nāgārjuna writes:

How, indeed, will disappearance exist at all without origination? [How could there be] death without birth? There is no disappearance without [prior] origination.

It does not obtain that origination and disappearance are the same thing. It does not obtain that origination and disappearance are different (McCagney, 1997, p. 59, insertions in original).

McCagney (1997, p. 60) citing from Nāgārjuna’s work Śūnyatāsaptatikārikā, writes:

Without one [eka] there are not many [aneka]. Without many [aneka] one [eka] is not possible.

The father is not the son, the son is not the father. Neither exists without being correlative. (Insertions in original)

Employing the principle of pratītya samutpāda or dependent origination and his dialectical skills, he refutes the contention of the realists that a thing exists in-itself or of-itself. The subject does not exist independent of the object; neither does the cause exist without the effect. These dichotomous pairs—like all that we use in everyday life—have no meaning beyond their relationship with each other.

Thus, the rigid dichotomy between the subject and the object crumbles down, for the Mādhyamika critique shows that the act of knowing is a product of the interaction between the observer/knower and the observed/ known. Any dichotomized way of thinking results in avidyā, loosely translated as ignorance, which motivates the mind to grasp thoughts as things to be grasped by the individual ego. The solution to the enigma of our existence or the knowledge of the ultimate is gained by the transcendence of all the reified and rigid thoughts through a way of ‘seeing’ and ‘being’ called prajñā. The search for knowledge is grounded in our language, presuppositions and all those concepts and entities that we hold on to as givens in our everyday life. We attach transcendental and eternal value to them, which Mādhyamika deconstructs by placing them in a sociolinguistic and historical context, thus paving the way for a spiritual seeker to transcend the rationalistic tendency to make sense of the truth through any epistemological or ontological suppositions. Huntington (1989, p. 121) explains this most beautifully:

According to the Mādhyamika, a … convoluted and subtle relationship holds between any two dichotomies of conceptual thought, whether expressed in ontological, epistemological, ethical or any other terms: Cause/effect, subject/ object, substrate/predicate, absolute/ relative, truth/error, good/evil, and all other dualistic concepts find their meaning in the context of their elusive relationship with each other and with an interrelated network of other such concepts. The structure that they give to all experience—a structure that seems “to emerge from the things themselves”—is also dependent on an illusion similar to the Necker cube where each image finds its meaning and existence only in the context of its relationship to partners that must always remain out of sight.

The crucial difference is that whereas illusion in Necker cube is simple, the regular life situations are much more complex. Huntington (1989, p. 121) continues:

The critical difference is only that the context of everyday life in which these other relationships are embedded is infinitely more complex, for it embodies an indeterminate number of historical and circumstantial factors shared by the sociolinguistic community in which this vocabulary is used and thought and perception take place.

Similarly, Advaita Vedānta posits that this world consists of dualities, and that the Ultimate Reality, which is the source of all that exists, is beyond all these dualities. True knowledge can only be gained when one transcends the dual world. Swami Satprakashananda (1977, pp. 96–97) writes:

It is maya that brings about the relativity of subject and object, the knower and the known. The two are dissimilar, yet inseparable. One does not exist without the other. The universe is a conglomeration of pairs of opposites, such as life and death, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, knowledge and ignorance, plenty and want, beauty and ugliness, kindness and misery, love and hatred, good and evil, in which the antitheses are correlated; yet either factor appears to be an independent element and in vain we try our utmost to have one of the pair to the exclusion of the other. This is the effect of the maya. There is no elevation without depression, no construction without destruction, no addition without subtraction. In each case they the contraries form a single process. They are inseparable; yet they appear disparate. This is the effect of maya.

Having addressed how the subject–object dichotomy can be transcended, let us examine the cause of underlying relativism, though generally not acknowledged in the discipline of Western psychology. This is because, as supported by many mystical traditions, mind—with reason, logic and intellect as its instruments—cannot arrive at the truths of our existence. Intellectual activity, discursive thinking and logical analysis alone are not capable of solving the final enigmas of our existence—it cannot unravel all the mysteries. According to Sri Aurobindo—one of the greatest mystics of the last century—mind and its instruments cannot perceive the reality as a whole as its very nature is to classify, divide, compare and measure. It creates dualities such as absolute/relative and subject/object. It tries to understand things through categories, concepts and formulas. This is perhaps why in the intellectual history of mankind there have been scores of such formulas and theories but nothing definitive can be said about the fundamentals of our existence despite that most psychological theories have almost equal intellectual appeal, and have evidence to support their claim even if they contradict one another. What we have today are thousand and one schools of psychology each claiming an exclusive monopoly on the truth of human behaviour. Sri Aurobindo (1997, pp. 162–163), who has written extensively on the limitation of the mind on numerous occasions throughout his writings, puts it most succinctly:

Mind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists only as obvious parts and fractions, Mind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as aspects of a whole. For, even when it knows that they are not things in themselves, it is obliged to deal with them as if they were things in themselves; otherwise it could not subject them to its own characteristic activity. It is this essential characteristic of Mind which conditions the workings of all its operative powers, whether conception, perception, sensation or the dealings of creative thought. It conceives, perceives, senses things as if rigidly cut out from a background or a mass and employs them as fixed units of the material given to it for creation or possession. All its action and enjoyment deal thus with wholes that form part of a greater whole, and these subordinate wholes again are broken up into parts which are also treated as wholes for the particular purposes they serve. Mind may divide, multiply, add, subtract, but it cannot get beyond the limits of this mathematics. If it goes beyond and tries to conceive a real whole, it loses itself in a foreign element; it falls from its own firm ground into the ocean of the intangible, into the abysms of the infinite where it can neither perceive, conceive, sense nor deal with its subject for creation and enjoyment.

Western psychology—due to the spirit of the times—has mainly been inspired by an intellectual and cognitive activity with a heavy reliance on the logical and discursive mind to find out the truths of human behaviour, for the West has considered intellect with its purified reason to be the ultimate instrument for exploring the nature of human existence. Consequently, it embraced a methodology that operated in strict dualities and dichotomies like subject/object, absolute/relative, and universal/local. But the reason of individuals varies according to their belief, upbringing, culture, attitude, language and perspective. Also the reason that has money and power to back its claim becomes the right reason. Recognizing the relativity of reason, which also explains the presence of relativism in psychology with respect to theories, Sri Aurobindo (1995, pp. 164-165) states:

You believe according to your faith, which is quite natural, he believes according to his opinion, which is natural also, but no better so far as the likelihood of getting at the true truth of things is in question. His opinion is according to his reason…. How is reasoning to show which is right? The opposite parties can argue till they are blue in the face—they won’t be anywhere nearer a decision…. But who can look at the world as it is and say that the trend of things is always (or ever) according to the right reason—whatever this thing called right reason may be? As a matter of fact there is no universal infallible reason which can decide and be the umpire between conflicting opinions; there is only my reason, your reason, X’s reason, Y’s reason multiplied up to the discordant innumerable. Each reasons according to his view of things, his opinion, that is his mental constitution and mental preference.

Similarly, according to Advaita Vedānta, mind is not the knower of things but an object of knowledge. Just as physical objects—such as a chair, for instance—can be observed, mind also can be observed, which makes it an object of knowledge rather than a knower. Hence the knowledge of our existence cannot be grasped by the mind—it is something else that is the knower. That according to Vedānta is the Self, which is the self-intelligent, self-aware, self-evident, self-illuminating consciousness.

It is only by consciously identifying oneself with the consciousness beyond the mind that one finds the truths of one’s existence. That Self is the self of all selves, and by knowing that one not only gains the knowledge of one’s own self but also the knowledge of the selves of all others. According to Advaita Vedānta and Sri Aurobindo, all the things that we call our real self like mind and body are not the self at all—these are external aspects of personality put forth by the Nature for the play of life. The real Self is within and above all that we usually identify as our self. The identification with the real Self reveals to us the knowledge of all the mysteries that the universe has concealed from us, which includes the truth that lies behind the psychology of every human being. Sri Aurobindo (1996, pp. 374–375) comments:

Since the Self which we come to realise by the path of knowledge is not only the reality which lies behind and supports the states and movements of our psychological being, but also that transcendent and universal Existence which has manifested itself in all the movements of the universal, the knowledge of the Self includes also the knowledge of the principles of Being, its fundamental modes and its relations with the principles of the phenomenal universe. This was what was meant by the Upanishad when it spoke of the Brahman as that which being known all is known. It has to be realised first as the pure principle of Existence, afterwards, says the Upanishad, its essential modes become clear to the soul which realises it. We may indeed, before realisation, try to analyse by the metaphysical reason and even understand intellectually what Being is and what the world is, but such metaphysical understanding is not the Knowledge. Moreover, we may have the realisation in knowledge and vision, but this is incomplete without realisation in the entire soul-experience and the unity of all our being with that which we realise. It is the science of Yoga to know and the art of Yoga to be unified with the Highest so that we may live in the Self and act from that supreme poise, becoming one not only in the conscious essence but in the conscious law of our being with the transcendent Divine whom all things and creatures, whether ignorantly or with partial knowledge and experience, seek to express through the lower law of their members.

Consequently, psychology needs to be a science of consciousness as opposed to a science of mind and behaviour. This new paradigm of psychology can be made possible by transcending our mind, and by implication its various created dualities, by attaining prajñā or by realization of the Self.2 This paradigm of psychology warrants the transcendence of mind, logic, intellect and reason by using our mind to the hilt to see how logic, reason and intellect are inferior instruments in the pursuit of the truths of our existence. The mystics claim that the deeper truths of our existence unravel themselves on a silent mind, compared metaphorically to an ocean that is absolutely calm. In other words, stillness of the mind is the necessary condition for accessing knowledge that lies beyond the domain of intellect. It is this region that holds the key to the secrets of mind and consciousness. A complete silence of the mind and a change of ordinary human consciousness hold the promise of accessing knowledge of the fields not available to the physical eye.

A change of ordinary human consciousness becomes a necessary condition for undertaking such a pursuit of psychology. It is not by looking outside of us that we can find answers to the enigmas that shroud us, but by looking within. In this research the researcher and the researched become one; the subject becomes the object and vice versa, leading to the transcendence of the strict dichotomy of subject–object that psychology has practised so far. Yoga, which actually means a union with the Divine or with the essential ground of all beings—whichever way one may want to see it according to one’s preference—is the key through which a change of human consciousness—and hence a transcendence of mind—is possible. The Indian mystics have practised this art for centuries together, and have left behind a rich source of literature for all kinds of aspirants who want to take this path. Many of them have always stated that there is no one right way to take; that is the reason why there is a plethora of paths leading to the oneness that underlies this universe, based on the different constitutions and psychological make-up that humans have. However, when I talk about the distinctiveness of India in this field, I do not mean to suggest that such experiments have not been conducted anywhere else in the world—what I definitely mean is that they have been fewer in other parts of the world limiting the many possibilities of approaching the consciousness that humans have in their repertoire.

From the spiritual literature, and the written accounts of mystics it is found that there are layers and layers of consciousness, and forces that are invisible to the ordinary human eyes that are constantly impinging on human beings that determine their behaviour. These forces and levels of consciousness can only be discovered if we undertake an enquiry which involves a direct and intuitive experience with the nature of things. Sri Aurobindo (1994, pp. 333–334) states:

It is not enough to observe and know the movements of our surface nature and the superficial nature of other living creatures just as it [is] not enough for Science to observe and know as electricity only the movements of lightning in the clouds or for the astronomer to observe and know only those movements and properties of the stars that are visible to the unaided eye. Here as there a whole world of occult phenomena have to be laid bare and brought under control before the psychologist can hope to be master of his province.

Our observable consciousness, that which we call ourselves, is only the little visible part of our being. It is a small field below which are depths and farther depths and widths and ever wider widths which support and supply it but to which it has no visible access. All that is our self, our being,—what we see at the top is only our ego and its visible nature.

Even the movements of this little surface nature cannot be understood nor its true law discovered until we know all that is below or behind and supplies it—and know too all that is around it and above. (Insertion in original)


To sum up, psychology needs to base itself on the foundation of a sure knowledge—on having a first hand knowledge of the hidden layers and layers of consciousness, which means mastering the subtle realms of human existence that are not visible to the ordinary human eye. It needs to go into the trans-mental and trans-intellectual realm through purification of mind and body, by transcending logical and intellectual thought, by stilling the mind within all internal and external chaos and flux so that the knowledge of the subtle and the invisible becomes known. Within the Indian tradition, it means seeing things with the ‘third eye’. The future psychology as a science or the psychology that I envision, primarily based on the insights of Sri Aurobindo, is one in which such knowledge of ‘psychology by identity’ becomes a legitimate field of enquiry in academia, and is taken up by large numbers of people. For centuries together in India, the exploration of the deeper truths of our existence has taken place by the mystics—Ṛṣis, Munis and Sufis. Under the destruction brought about by colonization and the dominance of Western heuristics in academia since then, a legitimate field of enquiry into the nature of human existence was systematically decimated and discredited. In modern times the pursuit of knowledge has come a full circle, and the time has come to pursue the ancient science once again, and in its light evaluate the findings of Western psychology. Within the Indian context, the time has come for us to bestow legitimacy to the age-old tradition of ours, and inspire the younger generation of psychologists to become mystics who can determine the psychological laws and the psychology of individuals based on knowledge by identity, and we need to make a quantum jump by exploring the mystical and the invisible realm of Nature who carries in herself all the secrets that govern human behaviour.


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