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Integral health

The meta-psychology of reason

Dr. Soumitra Basu

Necessity of reason

Sensory perception is the first gateway to the knowledge of the world, of ourself, of our existence. Once its limits are exhausted, the human being moves to another level of experience — reason.

Of course, we do not wait to utilise our ratiocination till our sensory experience gets exhausted. Sensory perception itself has to be supplemented by our rational repertoire of knowledge for clarification. It is thus we understand phenomena like optical illusions. Speaking of the usual human perception of the sun moving around the earth (a scientific falsity but a phenomenal truth), Sri Aurobindo states:

“For the senses the sun goes round the earth; that was for them the centre of existence and the motions of life are arranged on the basis of a misconception. The truth is the very opposite, but its discovery would have been of little use if there were not a science that makes the new conception the centre of a reasoned and ordered knowledge putting their right values on the perceptions of the senses (1).”

“But the right goal of human progress must always be an effective and synthetic reinterpretation by which the law of that wider existence may be represented in a new order of truths and in a more just and puissant working of the faculties on the life-material of the universe (2).”

Since the earliest days, whenever a human being has perceived a real threat to his life (be it a tiger or a gun facing him), he has taken it seriously, without any doubt. Surprisingly, the same human being who perceived the sun moving around the earth with the same sensory apparatus had at some time in history an element of doubt. It is the faculty of doubting that led him to look behind appearances. He had to employ his rational discrimination so that his senses could be invested with correct, error-free values.

The hard question is how did that element of doubt creep into his system, leading to a ‘synthetic reinterpretation’ and reappraisal of his perceptual information? Was it instinct? Was it some sort of intuition?

It may be argued that ‘reason’ itself supplied that doubt. Of course, it is the function of reason to argue and doubt. That is how man has been able to rise above superstitions, dogmas and stereotypes. But by the time reason had developed to an optimal level as a universal faculty, man was already flooded with a multitude of perceptual inputs. Reason therefore needed some intrinsic guidance to select those perceptions that required correction or revaluation. This pre-programmed guidance must have been instinctive or intuitive. To understand this phenomenon, we need to appreciate the meta-psychology of reason.

A pre-existent truth

In Chapter VII of The life Divine, Sri Aurobindo deals with the meta-psychology of reason.

Reason is supposed to be a faculty that is logical, unbiased, error-free and engaged in the disinterested pursuit of Truth. But who decides what Truth is? Who decides what Falsehood is? Or else who decides what is a greater Truth or a lesser truth? Why do we prefer honesty to dishonesty, life over homicide, and peace over discord? If Reason has to choose, how does it arrive at an error-free choice? If Reason is unbiased and disinterested, how can it vouchsafe for certain values, declaring them to be positive and impose it on our being?

The interesting thing is that certain objectives are equally valid to the spiritual aspirant as well as to the atheist — both would reject dishonesty, discord, disease, death — both would vouchsafe for honesty, peace, health and life! There is unanimity in whatever is considered ‘positive’ to life.

This means that the human being’s concept of whatever is positive already pre-exists somewhere in consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes that there is a positive, pre-existent truth (3). Reason moves towards this Truth by elimination of error, progressing through the dualities of ‘right’ knowledge and ‘wrong’ knowledge. (‘Right’ knowledge is that which moves towards the unitary principle, ’wrong ’knowledge is that which is ‘exclusive’ but unable to shift from the multiplicity to the unitary poise of Reality).

Thus, at every moment, reason has to make a conscious choice to move towards Truth. This indicates that “in the principle of reason itself there is the assertion of a Transcendence (4).”

Problems of reason

The meta-psychological perspective has to deal with two problems of reason:

a. Despite the element of Transcendence that exists in reason and leads man to ‘positive’ constructs of Truth, Reason also succumbs to the stark practical reality that contradicts man’s highest ideals. Man’s idea of Truth is “an absolute of all that is positive to his own concepts and desirable to its own instinctive aspiration, — Knowledge without its negative shadow of error, Bliss without its negation in experience of suffering, Power without its denial by incapacity, purity and plenitude of being without the opposite sense of defect and limitation (5).” But the practical reality is just the opposite of what our highest ideals envisage. The world as we perceive it appears to be the denial or contradiction of our absolutist ideals. Therefore, reason has to constantly make a compromise, opting for “a conditioned, limited and precarious knowledge, happiness, power and good (6).”

b. Reason works through doubts and inhibitions and lacks the spontaneous, uninhibited quality possessed by non-rational faculties like emotion. It is as if reason lacks the instinctive certitude that emotion per se possesses. Sri Aurobindo explains that this happens because emotions like happiness have an implicit, in-built element of faith:

“If our reason has not the same instinctive certitude with regard to the other aspirations of humanity, it is because it lacks the same essential illumination inherent in its own positive activity. We can just conceive of a positive or absolute realisation of happiness, because the heart, to which that instinct for happiness belongs has its own form of certitude, is capable of faith and because our minds can envisage the elimination of unsatisfied want which is the apparent cause of suffering (7).” Reason not only lacks faith but is countered, contradicted and challenged by faith.

In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo elaborates:

“The reason cannot grasp all truth in its embrace because truth is too infinite for it; but still it does grasp the something of it which we immediately need, and its insufficiency does not detract from the value of its work, but is rather the measure of its value. For man is not intended to grasp the whole truth of his being at once, but to move towards it through a succession of experiences and a constant, though not by any means a perfectly continuous self-enlargement….Its inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining opposite views are the whole secret of its value…For so man moves towards the infinity of the Truth by the experience of its variety...(8)”

Surpassing reason

Man cannot remain satisfied unless what presents to reason as instinctive aspirations are turned into realisable potentialities. This is difficult to achieve. Sri Aurobindo explains:

“The error of the practical reason is an excessive subjection to the apparent fact which it can immediately feel as real and an insufficient courage in carrying profounder facts of potentiality to their logical conclusion (9).”

One could cite a common experience. We know very well how difficult it is to eliminate pain and death. Yet we cannot deny the fact that “the rejection of pain is a sovereign instinct of the sensations, the rejection of death a dominant claim inherent in the essence of our vitality (10).” Indeed we have been trying to eliminate negative phenomena like pain and postpone death as far as possible. We have been trying to detect and minimize the causes of error, falsehood, ignorance and suffering. To the last moment we do not want to lose hope for a moribund subject. We try to keep a comatose subject in the life-support system as far as possible. We try to explore our available potentiality to the maximum extent so as to move with caution and precision towards our constructs of truth. We do not call a full stop to research; we do not call for a halt to our endeavour for progress beyond our present capacities.

Sri Aurobindo is optimistic and points out that “present potentiality is a clue to future realisation (11).” He is confident that the scope of the present levels of human experience (viz. sensory perception and reason) can be extended for conceptualising and willing an anterior potentiality. This can only be possible by an expansion of the faculties of knowledge. That expansion necessitates a surpassing of reason and harnessing hitherto untapped suprarational faculties. These suprarational faculties have been sporadically available to exceptional individuals scattered in space and time. But Sri Aurobindo previsions their emergence as a more generalised, universal experience. He works out this concept in The Life Divine and traces an evolution of consciousness through cognitive matrices that progressively moves towards a global cognition that includes both the oneness and the multiplicity and finally culminates in the integral cognition of the Supermind where the Whole is present at every point and at every point, one can cognise the Whole.


1. Sri Aurobindo. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 21. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 2005, p. 58.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p.61.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., pp. 61-2.

8. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volume 25, 1997, p. 122

9. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works , Volume 21, p. 62

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

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Sensory perception





Sri Aurobindo