Advancing the Scientific Study of Meaning. Through my writing I explore the connection between meaning and science. I write about two broad themes: (1) the problems of indeterminism, incompleteness, uncertainty and inconsistency in different fields of science (mathematics, physics, computing, linguistics and biology) and their relation to meaning, and (2) the manner in which meaning and matter..
It is commonplace for people to assert that quantum theory indicates a lack of objectivity or reality, when all it indicates is the failure of the classical conception of reality. In the classical conception, when you cut an apple, you get smaller pieces of apple. In this post, I will argue that the quantum conception of cutting an apple involves separating its taste from smell, from sight, from touch, etc. I will then discuss how this new type of cutting resolves quantum problems. Finally, I will discuss how this conception of atoms arrived at by cutting an object relates to the notion of atoms in Sāñkhya philosophy which are described as the atomic units of sensations.
The Debate About Concepts
We are all accustomed to using conceptual objects. These include concepts such as ‘table’ and ‘chair’. Now, there has been a huge debate about what we mean by such concepts, beginning with the ideal forms in Platonic philosophy since Greek times. The earliest idea about such concepts was that there is an ideal shape by which we call things tables and chairs. The problem was that lots of things that don’t have such ideal shapes are also called tables and chairs. So, it was hard to give a definition to concepts that was both linguistically meaningful and practically useful in an everyday sense.
This problem came to a head in the early part of 20th century, when philosophers started arguing that all problems of philosophy originated in the idea of universals, and that this was a bogus idea. There is no such thing as perfect beauty or even a perfect red, let alone a perfect chair or table. If we get rid of these universals, and replace them with something else, we could solve the problems of philosophy.
There emerged a broad consensus that we had to replace these concepts with something practical and empirical and, beginning with Ludwig Wittgenstein, it came to be believed that concepts are simply functions. That is, a chair or a table is not a universal concept, but how things are used. If you sit on a block of wood, you are using it as a chair, and therefore instead of talking about the shape of an ideal chair we should talk about how things are being used. Now, this use is empirical and practical, and doesn’t rely on an ideal shape and therefore we don’t need an ideal world of concepts.
There arose several schools of philosophy called pragmatism, operationalism, and functionalism, which expressed this basic insight in different ways. 20th century philosophy broke away from classical and medieval philosophy in rejecting the existence of meaning as something that existed beyond the observable world. This then led to the decline of the idea of mind as a different kind of substance than matter, giving way to materialism and pragmatism in all areas of thinking. For example, it is fashionable nowadays to say that the ‘mind’ is a special function of the brain; this function arises due to a special relation between parts, by which a part becomes the mind. This approach allows us to treat the mind materially as chemicals, and yet explain the unique functionality called the mind.
The Trouble in Functionalism
Functionalism brings a new problem, namely that if something is not being used in a certain way then it cannot be designated by that concept. For example, if nobody is sitting on the chair right now, the object cannot be called a chair. Therefore, if you see a chair in a furniture shop, and nobody is sitting on it, you could not say that it is a chair. A fallout of this issue is that I cannot make claims about the world as it exists prior to my observation and use. A thing is known only by how I use that thing.
This is a grave problem because it entails a complete collapse of objective reality. I cannot say that the world exists if I’m sleeping because I cannot observe the world while I’m sleeping, therefore the world is not a chair, not a table, not red, not black, not anything. The world simply doesn’t exist. Only when I’m interacting with the world, can I claim that the world exists as those types of functions.
Furthermore, since I can use the world in different ways, what I call the world depends on my use. For example, a block of wood could be used as a table and a chair, and if my definition of objectivity is how I use, then that objectivity is observer dependent. I cannot say that there is a reality independent of my observation. However, if there is no reality independent of my observation, then everyone’s version of reality—based on their observation—must be equally real. How could we give a privileged position to one version of reality—e.g. given by science—over another that is formulated by a non-scientist? This constitutes the crisis of realism in philosophy, and it is important to understand this crisis before we get into the crisis of realism in atomic theory, because these two are intimately connected.
Two Notions About Concepts
A potential solution to this crisis is that we need two notions of objects—one that they are ideas and the other that they are functions. As an idea, I should be able to say that there is something that exists without my observation. And as a function, I should be able to say that I’m using that thing in a certain way.
Furthermore, to accommodate these two apparently contradictory notions about objects, I must say that the reality that exists prior to my observation only exists as a possibility. For example, a block of wood can be used as a table or as a chair, which are possibilities about how it can be used. One person might use it as a chair and another one can use it as a table, so both possibilities are real in the sense that they exist and yet unless we use them in a certain way, they are not truly realized.
It follows that the world as it exists prior to being observed and used is the collection of all the possibilities of observation and use. This leads to another problem, because this collection of different possibilities is not one thing. It is a collection. To truly speak about reality as that one thing, I must be able to call something a block of wood, that can be used as a table or a chair. But even that block of wood is an observation, and hence one of the many possibilities of observation.
The Crisis of Realism in Atomic Theory
This is the problem of modern atomic theory. We can say that something is a collection of possible observations and uses—based on different types of interactions with observers—but we cannot say that it is one thing that exists prior to that observation. Since it is not one thing but a collection of possibilities, a choice must select from this collection to produce one observable reality. However, if this choice is not acting—i.e. I’m not observing the world—then the world simply doesn’t exist.
In classical physics, an object was an idea that existed even when I did not observe the world. Thus, there were indeed tables and chairs even when we did not observe them. In quantum physics, an object is a function which is created only when I observe the world. We are not able to reconcile these two notions about objects, which is called the problem of measurement in atomic theory.
To truly solve the problem, we must say that there is indeed one thing, but it can be used in many ways. The idea notion of the object must refer to that one thing, and diverse functional uses to the collection. In classical physics, each thing behaved in only one way, so observation and reality were identical. In quantum physics, each thing can behave in many ways, so observation is different from reality. We can never truly understand reality by any observation, because each observation reveals a complementary aspect of reality. We must now understand reality in a new way—thus far unknown.
The Role of the Mind
This problem is not new; we encounter it every day. For example, something that looks like an apple isn’t necessarily an apple. It must also smell like an apple, taste like an apple, digest like an apple, and produce the benefits of an apple. There are many things that can separately smell like an apple, taste like an apple, or look like an apple, but they are not necessarily apples. Then, what is an apple? It is a specific combination of something with a certain type of taste, smell, touch, color, shape, etc.
Each of the senses—e.g. eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue—only produces a specific kind of sensation. The senses don’t produce the knowledge of something being an apple, because the apple is the combination of the observations produced by all the five senses. To obtain the apple, therefore, we must combine each of these sensations into a single object and then cognize it as an apple. If our senses were analogues of the different measuring instruments that produce one type of sensation, then the problem of atomic theory would be that we have the diverse sensations of an apple, but we don’t have the counterpart of the mind that combines these individual sensations into an apple.
We can now say that the reality which exists prior to observation is the apple, but that apple is only a concept. It is none of the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, which are produced only when we observe the apple by our senses. Therefore, the reality is conceptual whereas the observations are perceptual. That reality can only be known by the mind, not by the senses because it is the apple as opposed to the taste, touch, smell, sound, form, and color of the apple. Individually, the apple can be tasted, smelt, touched, or seen, by different senses, which are different measurements we can perform on the apple. But the apple itself is different from each of these measurements.
The Problem of Complementarity
The new problem—entailed by quantum theory—is that we cannot measure all the properties simultaneously. Niels Bohr called this the new paradigm of complementarity in which only one type of measurement can be performed at one time. Remember that, in classical physics, all the properties of an object—e.g. the position and momentum—could be measured simultaneously, even though they were being measured by different instruments. This is no longer possible with quantum objects.
The problem of complementarity could be demystified if we said that the mind only pays attention to one sense (e.g. the eye or the nose) at any given moment in time. So, the mind might attend to the smell of the apple, followed by the size, followed by the color, followed by the taste, etc. Each of these are complementary properties of the object, but they are measured one by one. If you carefully analyze your observation, when you look at something, you notice one part of that thing before others. You might even say that you hadn’t noticed something at first sight. That’s not because that thing you did not notice was absent; it is primarily because your mind did not pay attention to it earlier.
Therefore, the mind becomes necessary to do science because only by the mind can we explain why all the sense measurements cannot be performed simultaneously but must arrive in an order. A certain type of mind might attend more to the taste than to the smell, while another mind attends to smell more than the color. We attribute the relative preponderance of one type of measurement to quantum probabilities, but we are unable to explain the order of measurements. And we can never complete the explanation unless we postulate a mind that does various measurements one by one.
The Evolution of Probabilities
At the point of measurement, the possibility of the observation becomes one, and every other possibility becomes zero. After an observation, however, the probability wave spreads according to the Schrodinger’s equation. The greater the time elapsed, the greater is the spread of possibilities.
This means that if you make observations in quick succession, your mind will be narrowly focused on the possibilities close to each other. However, if you withdraw the mind, the next thing you observe could be very far from the original observation. Thus, a mind that is actively engaged with the senses remains engrossed on a very narrow set of possibilities. But if the mind is disengaged for a while and then engaged again, you can suddenly see something new that you never saw before. There are everyday counterparts of this idea, such as the fact that if you are unable to solve a problem by continual focus, you can withdraw and relook at the problem after a while and you will find something new that you did not previously see. Withdrawal can reveal a radically different reality.
The Problem of Entanglement
The most perplexing problem in quantum theory—one that drove Einstein nuts about quantum theory—is the idea of non-locality. The problem arises because of two different ways in which we think of dividing a big object into smaller objects—according to classical and to quantum physics.
When you cut an apple according to classical physics, you are cutting it into smaller physical parts, each of which will continue to have some taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight, although in a smaller quantity. After cutting, each part would become an independent object. If these objects are far apart, then any communication between them will take some time—constrained by the speed of light. Measurement on one piece can have no effect on the outcome of measurement on the other pieces.
However, when you cut an apple according to quantum physics, you are separating the smell of the apple from its color, taste, shape, etc. The apple in the quantum conception is the combination of sense-data (e.g. taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) and cutting the apple is taking apart these individual properties. No matter how far you take them apart, they will remain the same sense datum—i.e. they will not lose the fact of being the quanta of taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. Hence, when you perform a measurement, the quantum of smell will produce the observation of smell, the quantum of taste will produce the observation of taste, and so on, for every particle.
Now, this fact perplexes people because of a classical conception about quantum theory in which each quantum is like a piece of apple that has all the properties (taste, smell, touch, etc.) but when you perform a measurement only one of these properties will be revealed randomly. This idea is called superposition of all the properties, followed by the detection of a single property. The problem is that if you take different pieces of apple far apart, one of them gives taste, another one gives smell, yet another one gives color, yet another one gives form, etc. Since each measurement reveals a different property, and these properties never overlap across measurements, it seems that these particles are somehow coordinating the measurement outcome, so they must have communicated instantly. This instant communication violates the speed of light and is hence called non-locality.
This entire problem is fictitious, and it arises because we think of quanta as pieces of an apple. It is as if an apple was cut into smaller pieces, and each piece then started behaving like a dice that would randomly turn up a different face when a measurement is performed. Einstein struggled with this idea, and then (correctly) concluded that each quantum must have a fixed property (to avoid the problem of a dice turning up a different property) but we don’t know which particle will produce which property. The quantum problem was therefore our ignorance, rather than an objective superposition.
Einstein was however still a classicist; atomism for him was smaller pieces of apple rather than the separation of taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch of the apple. Therefore, he could not make the bigger leap that the quantum particles are mathematically orthogonal because they require different instruments (like the different senses of observation) that can’t be employed simultaneously. The reason they cannot be employed simultaneously is that the mind flits its attention.
With a new conception of atomism, in which there is an object called apple which is only mentally perceived, and there are many properties (taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch) measured by the different senses, we can integrate the mind and the senses. The mind perceives the apple, and the senses perceive the properties of the apple. The quanta of atomic theory are the property units, but the idea of an apple combines these properties. This idea is not a Platonic entity, but projects different properties (through the senses) one by one revealing its presence, but never fully.
Like you can see different facets of a person at different times and occasions, and you form a mental picture of that person’s personality through a prolonged observation of their behavior, similarly, it is possible to form a mental picture of the object through the different observations.
The Relation to Sāñkhya Philosophy
Sāñkhya philosophy discusses the properties of matter, such as smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. These are then attributed to ‘elements’ such as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. We also speak about ‘atoms’ of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether, which are units of properties. Just like we speak about unit of mass and charge—e.g. a unit of mass is 1 kilogram and a unit of charge is 1 coulomb—similarly, we can speak about the unit of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. This is a property atomism.
These atoms cannot be detected simultaneously because each property requires a different measuring instrument—e.g. a sense. They are measured one by one because measuring each property requires shifting from one measuring instrument to another measuring instrument. The mind is responsible for this shifting, which is why we can say that the mind is involved in observation. The senses are not independent of the mind because the mind decides which sense is to be used at a given moment. The mind is therefore flitting from one sense to another creating an order of measurement. In real life, this happens so fast that we think we are observing the world simultaneously by all the senses.
I have simplified the above discussion by just using five properties, namely, taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. But this has been an oversimplification. A closer inspection reveals that are infinite number of properties. For example, sight can be divided into color, shape, and size. Color can then be divided into hue, saturation, and luminosity. Hue can then be divided into shades like red, blue, and green, and each of these can then be further divided. Sāñkhya describes how everything is the combination of three modes of nature so by successive combination there are infinite such properties in matter.
These properties form an tree—from root to leaves. From the perspective of a leaf, a twig is a property while the leaf is the value of the property. From the perspective of the branch, a twig is value, whereas the branch is the property. So, the same thing is a property and a value of some other property. In fact, if you consider three levels, then the same thing is an object, a property, and a value. Since it is an object, you can say that there is a quantum object. Since it is a property, you can say it is a unit of property. And since it is a value, you can say it is the value of some property. All three are true but they are true from different perspectives. The use of many perspectives just makes it harder.
If we understand the process of perception, then we can understand quantum theory, because we can see how there is a reality even when we don’t observe the world, that observation reveals a specific property of the world, that all properties are not measured simultaneously because observation requires diverting the attention to one kind of instrument, that attention can be withdrawn from the process of observation which expands the possibilities of observation, that properties are mutually entangled because they require orthogonal instruments, that the sense perceivable world is comprised of atomic properties rather than atomic objects, however, since the same thing is a property and an object, when you measure a property you can say you measured an atomic particle.
Secularism arose during the era of Enlightenment in Europe with the aim to relegate religion to the private realm and determine the public sphere by reason and experience. Europe wasn’t arguing for the equality of all religions in the eyes of the government. It was arguing for the rejection of the only religion that existed in their society. The modern claim that secularism is the equality of all religions in the eyes of the government tries to hide what lies in plain sight: it is the rejection of all religion. The equality of all religions in the eyes of the government was practiced in Vedic times, but it was an actively religious society that enabled the free choice of religion coupled with an active debate about which form of religion is superior. This post tries to demystify the conundrums of secularism, from the viewpoint of Vedic philosophy.
Reason vs. Faith
It is important to address the issue of reason vs. faith at the outset. I have described this issue previously by distinguishing between two uses of reason and experience—discovery vs. verification. Reemploying my example, suppose a person is trying to login into a computer using a password. He has two options. First, he can try to guess the password and use the guesses to check if they unlock the computer. Second, he can ask for the password from someone who knows it, and then check if it unlocks the computer. In the former case, reason and experience are employed in discovery (guessing the password) as well as verification (checking if the password unlocks the computer). In the latter case, they are used only for verification.
You don’t have to believe the truth of a password without verification. And you don’t have to assume that a locked computer can only be hacked by guesswork. You can rather obtain the password from someone you trust, and then verify it by reason and experience.
The contradiction between reason and faith is contrived; it applies to those ideas that can never be rationally understood or empirically verified. Such things should not exist; ideally, not even in the private domain. However, faith pending verification can exist privately or publicly. Such faith exists even in modern science where speculative theories are entertained until falsification. A scientist cannot do science until he or she believes that their propositions are potentially true. Therefore, even the scientist entertains faith, although as a stepping stone toward verification.
Is Religion Based on Faith?
Yes, religion is based on faith, in the second sense of the term noted above. That is, religion can be accepted as a working hypothesis until it leads to verification. That doesn’t mean every working hypothesis will turn out true; every faith is not necessarily religion.
I am treating religion pretty much as we treat science—i.e. a theory of everything. The theory may be true or false; only verification can tell us. Until it has been verified, the theory can be accepted based on faith. Once verified, the theory becomes confirmed truth. In so far as false theories are not considered ‘science’, similarly, false faiths need not be considered ‘religion’. I would therefore propose that we separate the idea of faith from that of religion. By this definition, there are potentially infinite faiths, but there is only one true religion.
I’m making these distinctions because the secularist argument that religion must be a private issue because it is based on faith rather than reason and experience is false. Religion is also a rational and empirical activity, although it goes beyond sense experience. Lots of things in science go beyond sense experience. All of mathematics, for example, is beyond sense experience: e.g. we cannot perceive numbers, but we believe in their existence. Nobody has seen a set, but it is the mental construction of a boundary. These ideas are useful, and the extent of that usefulness makes them true (we will shortly draw a distinction between absolute and relative truths). At the very least, their non-empirical nature doesn’t make them private.
The Tree of Religions
Now that the conventional argument for secularism is unsustainable, I will provide a new one, which is that truth is not just binary (i.e. true and false). It is also progressive, in the sense that there are local and universal truths; we progress from local to universal truth. A local truth that is not universally true is permissible because it is locally true, although it is not perfect.
In many traditions across the world, including the Vedic one, the world is described as an inverted tree that diversifies from a singular root into many trunks, branches, and leaves. The root is universally true, but the trunks, branches, and leaves are contextually true. These universal and contextual truths are respectively called Absolute and relative truths in Vedic philosophy. Clearly, the universal truth is superior, and the contextual truth is inferior. However, in the limited context where the contextual truth is applicable, there can be debates about the superiority of the two truths which cannot be settled locally. One must transcend the context to determine the superiority: Does a truth apply to everything or only to some things?
Based on the tree of diversification, the Vedic system constructs many relatively true religions, called dharma. The term dharma has many connotations, which all assert to the fact that these are relatively true. For example, dharma means ‘duties’ which are relative to the time, place, person, and situation involved in that duty. Similarly, dharma means ‘nature’ or the ‘natural way things behave’, which is contingent on something’s nature that is not universal.
For example, it is the dharma of air to be dry, and the dharma of water to be cold. This is how things are supposed to be naturally. You could, of course, infuse air with moisture or heat the water. That would only mean that these things are no longer in their natural state. I can elaborate this further through an example. The natural state of a Hydrogen atom is that it has one electron and one proton. But you can remove the electron and create an ion H+, which is an unnatural state. In this context, the Hydrogen atom is the higher truth, and the Hydrogen ion is the lower truth obtained by modifying it. The higher truth is decided by the fact that it is more stable, that it exists longer, and it is more pervasive than the lower truth. To confirm that pervasiveness, stability, and longevity, we must look beyond a context.
The Absolute Truth is defined as the fullness of everything, and relative truths as those obtained by removing something from Absolute Truth to create partial truths. The partial truths can only be defined in relation to the Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth is self-sufficient.
In the context of religions, this means that every contextual dharma depends on the Absolute Truth and must be defined by removing something from that Truth. The process of defining the relative truth entails that, definitionally, the Absolute Truth is present even in the relative truth, but it is not fully visible. I have elsewhere called this definitional existence as a semantic existence. It is not that the Absolute Truth is physically contained ‘within’ the relative truth, because that physical containment would mean it is absent from other relative truths. To allow for the Absolute Truth to exist across many relative truths, we need a new kind of existence—namely, semantic or definitional existence. Just like the idea ‘car’ exists in all cars, and yet the idea would exist even if the cars did not, similarly, the Absolute Truth exists in all partial truths, but even if the partial truths disappeared, the Absolute Truth would still exist. So, the Absolute Truth is both inside and outside everything; it is an idea. If one knows the Absolute Truth, then he can see how the relative truth has manifested from the Absolute Truth by hiding some part of the whole truth. To such a person, the myriad relative truths are diverse manifestations of the same Absolute Truth. However, those who lack the understanding of the Absolute Truth, see the relative truths as being opposed to each other, rather than seeing the unity underlying them.
Religion is One and Many
The Vedic system is notorious for describing many systems of religious practice. For instance, even within a single text of Bhagavad-Gita, four dominant systems of religious practice are described—karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. Krishna doesn’t hesitate in describing (BG Chapter 12 verses 8 to 12) a hierarchy among these systems: jnana-yoga is lowest, followed by dhyāna-yoga, followed by karma-yoga, and finally bhakti-yoga.
If we expand our focus to other Vedic texts, we can find more religious systems. For example, each of the above systems are practiced in Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta traditions. There are philosophical treaties on each of these systems, separate from the treatises on the practice by which the truth in these systems is confirmed. We can view them as the theory and the experiment. Even restricting ourselves to the Vaishnava system, and further limiting the focus to the practice of bhakti-yoga, there are many schools which describe different forms of Vaishnavism. Each system correspondingly has its different texts, practices, and rules.
To the casual onlooker, the Vedic system isn’t a single religion, and that is largely true. What the causal onlooker misses, however, is the fact that these are trunks, branches, and leaves of a tree, produced by removing something from the seed from which the tree has grown. If that seed is understood, then all the parts of the tree are simply partial manifestations of the seed. If the seed is not understood, then the Vedic system is an incoherent amalgamation of diversity.
Thus, a distinction between dharma and sanātana-dharma is sometimes made. There are infinite contextual, relative truth, dharma. There is only one universal, absolute, sanātana-dharma. The diversity can be organized in a tree, leading up to the seed of its manifestation.
The Practice of Religion
The Vedic system lays no claim to the completeness in describing the tree of religious diversity. In fact, there is open acceptance of the fact that the diversities are so large that they cannot be understood by anyone. In other words, there is no claim that the religious systems described in the Vedic texts are the only possible religious systems. Nor is the Vedic system prescriptive about the choice of any system. It is understood that there are innumerable systems, suited for different levels of understanding the Absolute Truth. You can begin with the leaves of the tree, progress into the branches, then onto the trunks, until you understand the seed.
Sri Veda Vyas converted the Vedic knowledge from an oral to a written tradition, and he describes all systems prevalent at the time of writing—i.e. about 5,000 years ago. The choice of which system one chooses was left to the individual, although guidance was provided about the results of these different systems—i.e. how far they take an aspirant in the pursuit of the Absolute Truth. Not everyone is necessarily interested in the Absolute Truth; some would like a better relative truth, or a better relative truth before they understand the Absolute Truth.
Secularism in the Vedic System
Given the wide variety of religious systems and the choice available to an aspirant, there was an effective secularism in the Vedic system. Teachers of different schools were not in conflict with each other although they did compete. Note that in the tree hierarchy, there is no conflict—everyone recognizes that there is a progression; therefore, no religious system is patently false (if they are at least contextually true), although some may be truer than others. The conflict (i.e. whether something is true or false) is replaced by a competition—truer than others.
This secularism is different than the one in Europe for many reasons. First, it did not distinguish between faith vs. rationality for the reasons noted above. In fact, six systems of philosophy were developed to debate Vedic ideas. So, there was no dearth of philosophical argument, or alternative ‘apostles’ who developed new systems of philosophy. Second, it did not aim to relegate the faith-based revealed knowledge into the private sphere; in fact, it encouraged open debate between the systems to find out the truer system. Thus, debate about religious matters was a fact of society without leading to modern conflictual wars, strife, and destruction. The debaters had only one rule—if they lost the debate they would accept the winner as their guru. Indeed, such debates were often held in the courts of kings, and if the debater supported by the king lost the debate, even the king would willingly accept the winner as his guru.
The acceptance of a system of religion by a king was by no means an enforcement of the system across his kingdom. It was a personal choice of the king, and it did not preclude other’s choices. By the active quest for the superiority of religious ideologies in the public sphere (e.g. the king’s court), and the advocation of the ideology that wins the debate, the ruler wasn’t secular in the modern sense (where he doesn’t advocate any religious ideology). For example, after the Kalinga war, Ashoka became an active proponent of Buddhism, but he did not try to destroy the Vedic system. By permitting the free practice of alternative religions, the ruler remained secular.
Secularism is thus not a new idea in a Vedic system, if it means the freedom to choose one’s religion unimpeded by the religious choice of the state. The Vedic secularism, however, takes this idea a step further—a public debate about the superiority of religions.
The Flaws in Modern Secularism
This background is important to understand the merits and demerits of the modern notion of secularism where it is understood in the Western rather than the Indian sense. The secularist, for example, aims to prevent the ruler from advocating a religion, thereby denying them their free choice of practicing and propagating their chosen religion. Their claim that religion lies in the private sphere is a consequence of Western rather than Indian secularism. Conversely, the rulers who profess and propagate a chosen religion publicly also try to curtail or suppress the practice of other religions besides their own, thus denying the free choice of religion to others. Their argument claiming a central ethos for India misses that fact that the Vedic system is not a single religion; it is the description of many paths, which are collectively not exhaustive.
Thus, both sides of the argument—whether in support or denial of secularism—are flawed. It takes some understanding of Vedic secularism to demystify the flaws in their arguments. The flaws can be summarized as follows. The practice and propagation of religion is available to everyone—including the rulers—so, religion is not a private affair, and denying the ruler their right to practice and propagate religion is against the fundamental rights of mankind. Similarly, just because the ruler prefers a religion, enforcing that ideology on others too is against the fundamental rights of others who have chosen to practice a different religion.
Everyone must have the freedom to practice and preach their religion, and even compete (which is part of the process of preaching). However, since the competition occurs in the public space, there must be ground rules about its conduct. Debates about the truth of a religion are valid forms of competition. Personal attacks on the followers of a religion—mental or physical—are unacceptable. Love of God cannot be forced; in fact, no form of love can be forced. Secularism is simply the restatement of the fact that whether and how the soul loves God remains its free will. Even the rejection of God is the soul’s free will. Therefore, coercion on a religious path can never be an answer. On the contrary, we must encourage competition in a free market of alternative options. Sometimes we recognize the value in a good product only after using the bad alternatives. Therefore, we cannot be afraid of competition; we must embrace it.
The Modern Dialogue on Religion
Many religions have been driven by the sword rather than by the power of reason, the use of dialogue, and convincing argument. The pursuit of power was supposed to be the means to an end—the propagation of a religious ideology. But it became the end. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Given the absolutist nature of religion, its quest for power corrupted it absolutely. The result was an unholy, cynical, vile, reckless, and cruel nexus between religion and politics that exists to this day. People forgot that religion involves free will. Their use of coercion led to inexcusable excesses being justified as God’s holy work. People the world over have been cheated by such false ‘religions’. They are now becoming atheists.
But we must remind ourselves of the origin of these perversions—the use of power to propagate religion. The religious revivalist needs the pen rather than the sword. In the battle between the pen and the sword, the pen is mightier than the sword. Religion cannot be advanced by the sword. It can be advanced by logical argument and debate, compassion and conviction. This doesn’t mean that the sword is not required. It is required for defending religion rather than advancing it. The sword can be used for protecting religion, but it cannot be used for propagating religion. Its use for propagation is the root of today’s perversities.
The path to religious revival is the resurrection of the erstwhile Vedic system of openness, dialogue, debate, with the use of reason and experience. The quality of this presentation—and the demeanor with which the debate is carried out—will decide the winners of this battle. Those who try to win the debate by wielding their swords will eventually be sore losers. We must acknowledge that free will is an inalienable property of the soul. Coercion, intimidation, and the use of violence means that we don’t understand the nature of the soul. What good can religion produce if we haven’t acknowledged that everyone has inalienable free will?
It is common to think that a person has a body and a mind. But when groups of people act in concerted ways, it seems that they are a singular body controlled by a mind. How is a random collection of people (who act in individual ways) different from one in which they act as if they were a single body controlled by a single mind? This post discusses the emergence of organization in a random collection of individuals, and the main idea is that two invisible constructs—structure and purpose—rather than the physical bodies create organization.
The Psychology of Mob Behaviors
A group of people gather for a protest at a city center. They shout slogans, as the bystanders look on. Slowly, some of them join the protestors, and the slogans grow louder. Suddenly someone from the group throws a stone at a nearby building, and many people in the group join in doing the same. The random assembly of peaceful demonstrators suddenly becomes a mob and starts a riot.
People are watching a movie in a theater. Suddenly someone shouts “bomb” and starts running. Some people follow him, and quickly the entire theatre panics and follows. One of the runners pushes a person in the front, who falls to the floor. Unmindful of the fallen, those behind them run over and push others in the rush. A group of people enjoying the movie suddenly becomes a stampede.
There are many examples of large scale emergent behaviors. People who seemed to have been autonomous individuals a while back become suddenly organized into a cohesive body that acts as if it has its own mind and a singular purpose. They do things in the group that none of them would have done individually. What causes the emergence of cohesiveness when it did not exist before?
The Role of Leadership
The simplest explanation of group behaviors is the existence of a leader. For example, in the group of protestors, there is a leader who sends out the invites asking people to gather. In the mob behavior, there is one person who throws the stone first, and becomes the example for others. Someone shouts “bomb” and starts running before others begin running. Someone pushes another person in front and sets the example for others to start pushing before the runners become a stampede.
So, you could say that there is always a leader who starts the movement, and there are others who follow. The leader demonstrates the courage to take an unprecedented action, and the followers then watch for its acceptance. There are many grades of followers—some more eager than others. The less eager followers wait for others to join; the more eager followers are quick to follow.
The capability for such types of actions exists in everyone in a potential form, but the emotion is missing. If that emotion is excited—e.g. as anger to protest, or as fear to run for their lives, or as greed to steal as much as possible during a riot—then the potential for action becomes the action. The leader plays the role of generating the initial emotion. The emotion is infectious, and it puts other people in a similar state. Thereafter, each person feeds off other’s emotions producing a cascading effect. When a group of people has been gripped by a shared emotion—anger, fear, greed, etc.—they also begin acting similarly, and it seems that the mob has a mind of its own.
The Importance of Critical Mass
It is entirely possible that the bystanders around a group of protestors never join the protest. They could watch for some time and then walk away. Or even mock the group, shaming them, perhaps causing the group to deplete. The leader may be emotionally charged but the follower might identify with the bystanders than the leader and find the excitement awkward. If many people feel the awkwardness, they leave and the group dies down because people are no longer able to feed off other’s emotions and they themselves become demotivated.
You need a critical mass of people in addition to the leader’s motivation to overcome the feeling of embarassment or awkwardness. There is safety in the numbers, and most people are not risk-taking pioneers due to fear of looking foolish. Even if the leader starts something important, but if a critical mass doesn’t join, the movement will dwindle as most people will wait for others to join before they take the first step. If the critical mass doesn’t develop quickly, even those who did join the leader initially may slowly leave.
This phenomenon can be understood in analogy to nucleation in the formation of crystals. There may be a high concentration of the solute in a solution, but the solution doesn’t crystallize unless a nucleus is formed. This nucleus is like the leader that triggers crystallization in a solution. Even if a nucleus is formed, but the critical mass doesn’t gather around the nucleus, the nucleus will dissolve back into the solution. However, if the nucleus forms, and there is sufficient critical mass around it, then the crystal will develop rapidly.
The Need for Organization
Many movements are born, grow rapidly, and then die fast. One prominent reason is that they fail to organize themselves for long-term stability. A group of people may be inspired by a leader and decide to follow him, but without a structure—i.e. the division of roles and responsibilities—they will end up competing. They may all desire to take prominent positions and roles, nobody may want to do the menial jobs, or they may not like the role they have been assigned. The competition within the group destroys cohesiveness.
The nucleus that gathers critical mass rapidly also grows haphazardly. On the other hand, moderation in the rate of growth allows enough time for the early participants to organize themselves into distinct roles and responsibilities which means that those who come afterwards find not merely the surge of emotion, and the strength of the critical mass, but also the clarity and efficiency of organization.
Groups collapse due to conflict—e.g. a motivated group of runners in a theater can turn into a stampede because each person wants to get out before the others. Therefore, critical mass is essential to get enough people to trigger the growth, but this growth can’t be too fast to create a stampede. You rather need a critical phase of growth followed by a phase of stability before you can enter the growth phase again. Sometimes, it may even be beneficial to slow the growth and deplete the membership to organize for growth.
The Problem of Balance
We can now phrase the problem of forming a group. You need a strong emotion to attract people, but too much emotion will attract the wrong type—i.e. the excitable and unstable. You need a critical mass and quickly, but if you grow too fast you will create competition and chaos. You need to organize yourself for efficiency, but if you produce a complicated structure you become inefficient.
The problem of forming a group involves balancing emotion, critical mass, and organization. The leader provides the emotion and purpose, the critical mass provides the safety and stability, and organization creates efficiency. Doing too much of one instead of the other will eventually be detrimental. Therefore, each of these tendencies works against the other. For example, the person specializing in organization would prefer to figure out the roles and duties before you add more people. Meanwhile, the person interested in growth will say—let’s get as many people as possible before we organize ourselves. The leader may want to inspire and motivate everyone, but he will be hindered by structure. But, if he breaks down that structure, he will only end up creating unwanted competition and chaos as a result.
The key pattern in organizations is the conflict between complementary needs which are simultaneously necessary and yet must be balanced with other equally important needs. The success of the group depends on dividing the time equally between all the different functions. If these functions are divided into different people, balance entails the sharing of power between them. For example, someone must handle the task of selling the vision and purpose, while someone else grows the organizational capability, meanwhile someone else creates the operational structure. The capability combines with the operational structure which then combines with the purpose to produce an outcome. Therefore, even if they seem mutually conflicting, it is only their combination that produces the actual results.
The Connection to Vedic Philosophy
The study of organizations may seem a mundane topic, but it is not. Organizations too are individuals in the sense that they reflect the basic dynamics of a spiritual individual who has three aspects—called sat (relation), chit (cognition), and ananda (emotion). In the organization, as we discussed, they manifest as organization structure, the members with their capabilities, and the motivating purpose.
An organization is not just the members that make it up. It is also not the members organized in a responsibility structure. It is rather members organized in a structure designed to fulfill a chosen purpose. The purpose is most important and comes first—it brings people together and motivates them toward action. The abilities and the actions of the people come next—they create the stability and momentum that grows the organization. The structure of the organization comes last—it organizes the members for efficiency.
The conflict between these three necessities, their reconciliation through a balance, and their combination to produce an outcome, are themes that I have discussed earlier in the context of psychology. However, they can be reinvented in the context of organization theory.
Does an Organization Have a Mind?
Many people have in the past toyed with the idea that a collection of individuals is also an individual. For example, it is tempting to think that an ant colony or a beehive is a living system. That the trillions of bacteria in a person’s digestive system act cohesively quite like a single organism. That society is a body whose soul is the goal and purpose for which the society is formed. That our biosphere and ecosystem is a living system, a sociological superorganism called Gaia. That a nation has a soul, a core ideology, a central purpose, which it must enact, live, realize, and fulfill. That a corporation is legally a person with rights, duties, property, and goals, that it implements via its members. This idea manifests in different ways in fields as diverse as politics, sociology, economics, law, management, ecology, and biology.
And yet, the problem is that we cannot find a physical unity among a collection of individuals. If each body has a separate brain, and the mind exists in that brain, then how could there be a single mind if there are separate brains? On the other hand, if we postulate the existence of a group mind, then how could individuals be considered free? They would be controlled as parts of a single body.
This is where we must view both individuals and organizations as hierarchies—as an inverted tree. The root of the tree is independent, but the trunks, branches, and leaves have limited freedom. The freedom grows as one as ascends the tree to the root and declines as one descends to the leaves. Therefore, even the leaf has some independence, though it is not totally free. The leader of a society or organization can forcibly exercise control over the entire system, but the followers cannot. They can, of course, choose a new leader or become leaders in the same or another organization. To the extent that the leader depends on the followers, they have influence over the leader.
Since the leader exercises control over a group of individuals, his or her mind becomes the dominant mind of the system. To the extent that other minds follow the leader’s mind, they behave in concert. It doesn’t mean there is a single group mind, although it does mean that the mind of the leader dominates the minds of the followers. We cannot understand this dominant-subordinate structure in a physical science theory because no material object has a privileged position in the universe; this idea is stated in physics as the equivalence of all coordinate systems, and the relativity of all observers. Organizations force us to think of space in a non-uniform way: some positions are highly privileged, some are lesser privileged, and yet others have practically no influence. Space understood as an influence structure forms an inverted tree. So, yes, the organization has a mind: it is the mind of the leader that dominates over the those of the followers.
Local and Extended Minds
A useful way to think of this issue is to think of the mind as something that is both local and extended. As a local entity, it exists as an individual. As an extended entity it exerts influence over others. This idea is not new; even in physical science, material objects exert forces on other objects. The difference is that this force is now asymmetric. The leader therefore exercises greater force on the follower than the follower on the leader. The variation in the influence is why the failure of an organization is attributed to the leader.
The leader externalizes his personality into the organization, and by this influence the organization behaves as if it were under the control of the leader, quite like the leader’s body is under the influence of his mind. Therefore, the organization can also be described as a single body under the control of a single mind, if there were indeed a controlling structure. This means that random groups of people—which don’t have an established leadership structure—cannot be described as a single body. An anarchic society is not a single body.
Two things distinguish a random collection of people from one that forms a body—structure and purpose.
If the structure doesn’t exist, then there is no position of privileged control, and hence there cannot be a coordinated behavior. Similarly, even if there is a structure but the purpose is weak or nonexistent, then despite the possibility of control, there is no control being exercised. Therefore, the factors that qualify a person to be treated as an individual are the same that qualify a group to become an organization. A random collection of people is not a body with a mind; they are separate bodies with separate minds. However, when these individuals are bound in a structure by a leader, there is a cohesive body with a mind. Mob behaviors are sudden appearances of this structure and leadership. But in general, the phenomenon is not limited to mobs; it is pervasive in society and organizations.
I have recently received several questions about Sāñkhya. These include the differences between senses and organs, that between inert matter and a living body, how desires influence perception, how Sāñkhya elements could be understood in analogy to motion, and the relation between yoga and the control of senses and the mind. These are not tightly interconnected topics, but I found a way on how to weave the answers together into a progressive ‘random walk’.
The Property-Value Difference
Today we are accustomed to thinking that the five senses, which produce the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell, are the five organs—namely, ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose. In Sāñkhya philosophy, a clear distinction between the body and the senses is made.
The body is comprised of the five elements called bhumi, apah, anala, vayu, and kham, which are loosely translated into English as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. Unfortunately, due to overlap with everyday words by the same name, and the legacy of Greek elements by the same name, there is considerable confusion on what these elements are. The novelty in Sāñkhya comes from the fact that—unlike the Greek elements, which were just substances called by these names—in Sāñkhya they are described in relation to the five senses. The element Earth, for instance, is the objectification of the property of smell, Water is the objectification of taste, Fire is the objectification of sight, etc.
To understand this objectification, we need to distinguish between a property and its value. For example, in modern science, we speak about the property ‘mass’ and its value such as ’10 kilograms’. Similarly, in the case of sense perception, there is a difference between a property such as color, and its value such as blue. The property is called tanmatra and the value is called bhuta in Sāñkhya.
Sāñkhya and modern science are nearly identical in this respect; they postulate that the external world perceived by our senses has some properties and their values. However, in modern science, the physical properties need to be mapped to the properties which the observer can observe whereas in Sāñkhya, the perceived properties (taste, smell, color, etc.) are themselves objectively real.
The Body-Sense Difference
Once we understand the difference between tanmatra and bhuta or property and value, then we need to understand the difference between senses and the property or indriya and tanmatra. Each property is tied to a sense; for example, color is tied to seeing. Similarly, tone and pitch are tied to hearing, odor to smelling, etc. Likewise, each sense can detect many properties. For example, the sense of hearing can measure tone, pitch, and form. The sense of seeing can detect color, form, and size.
Inert matter (such as a table or chair) is tanmatra and bhuta, without senses. The senses are matter too, but we cannot say that a table has the ability of seeing or tasting or touching. Therefore, in addition to inert matter, the living body has senses—called indriya—which gives it the power of sensation. A measuring instrument of science is only tanmatra and bhuta. For example, a kilogram is an instrument against which we measure mass, but the kilogram does not see or touch or smell. It is just bhuta attached to tanmatra without the senses that can perceive. A sense on the other hand is different from both bhuta and tanmatra, and it can see, taste, touch, smell, etc.
The Problem of Qualia
Many philosophers of mind question the modern materialism based on qualia or the qualitative feel of matter, such as the experience of color, taste, smell, and the experience of pain and pleasure. The debate arises because in science we model the world as physical properties rather than the properties by which we see, taste, touch, smell, or hear the world. So, we don’t say that a material object has taste or smell. We say that it has some mass and charge. Since the body is also comprised of this inert matter—i.e. tanmatra and bhuta—which are modeled as mass and charge, we find it very hard to explain how the world could be experienced as color, taste, smell, touch, sound, etc.
The short answer to this problem is that matter itself must be understood in terms of tanmatra and bhuta, following which we must postulate another kind of matter—indriya—that sees, tastes, touches, smells, etc. If the indriya is sight, then tanmatra is color or shape, and bhuta is blue or square. So, describing inert matter in a different way opens the door to the understanding of sensation.
Senses vs. Organs
Our organs are comprised of bhuta and tanmatra. They are like measuring instruments of modern science, except that they measure the tanmatra rather than physical properties. For instance when the eyes see light, its color is represented as symbols of color codes—red, green, and blue—rather than mass, charge, energy, momentum, position, time, spin, or angular momentum. To understand how our body perceives, we need to change the material properties from physical properties to the sensual properties or tanmatra and bhuta. However, this by itself would not be sufficient. We are also required to add to the properties and their values the senses by which they are perceived.
Unfortunately, the words used for the indriya are also used for organs. For example, the word chakshu is the instrument of seeing, and we translate it as ‘eyes’, which leads to the misunderstanding that the senses are the organs. However, during dreaming we don’t use the organs. Then how are we seeing? In Sāñkhya, we are seeing by the indriya rather than the organs. So, even if the organ is not working, the senses are still working, and they can interact with bhuta and tanmatra directly.
Direct and Indirect Interaction
During the waking state, our senses interact with the brain representation of the external world. For example, there is a representation of color created by the organs and the brain. The senses interact with this representation, which then results in an indirect sensation of the world because it is mediated by the organs and the brain. This indirect interaction with the world constitutes our waking state.
During the dreaming state, however, the senses directly interact with the tanmatra and bhuta in the external world rather than the tanmatra and bhuta in the brain. So, the senses can directly attach to the external world, and that direct interaction—unmediated by the brain and the organs—constitutes the dreaming state. The senses can, for example, attach to bhuta and tanmatra beyond a person’s brain.
However, the senses are still in contact with the brain and the organs, even though they are not being used for perception. Therefore, the movement of the senses—as they attach from one object to another—is reflected in the brain and the organs as well. As a result, during dreaming, even though the organs and the brain are not being used for perception, there is eye movement and brain activity. Sometimes a dreaming person may shout or talk, or move their head or limbs. Neuroscientists interpret this to mean that the brain is the cause of the dream, which creates a problem because using this explanation requires us to further explain why sleep triggers this hallucination.
The Existence of Dreams
In modern science we give an extraordinary emphasis to the waking state and consider that to be the main source of scientific knowledge. In Sāñkhya, however, the waking state is considered the most inferior level of conscious experience. There are three other states—called dreaming, deep sleep, and transcendent—which are successively responsible for even higher forms of knowledge.
Now, some of you might say that sleeping is associated with ignorance and inertia. So, how can it be considered a superior state of consciousness? The short answer is that in the waking state our perception is dependent on the body—i.e. the brain and the organs. So, it is very tempting to think (based on this waking state) that our perception is being produced by the brain and the bodily organs. This is indeed how modern science thinks. However, when you get into the dreaming state, you realize that you have perceptions even though you haven’t been using the bodily organs for perception. If dreams are understood, then we realize that our senses are different from the body.
So, the dreaming state is superior than the waking state because through dreams we acquire the first empirical insight that there is more to perception than the body (i.e. the brain and the organs). Trying to explain perception based on the body alone not only leads to the problem of qualia, but also to the second serious issue that during dreams our organs are not actually being used.
The main issue with the idea of senses is that we cannot observe the senses using the senses, because what we see through the senses is bhuta and tanmatra and not the indriya. This leads us to the paradox that the things by which we see cannot themselves be seen. So, now we require another kind of instrument which can measure the indriya, just like the indriya measure bhuta and tanmatra. Such an instrument is called the manas or mind, which moves from one sense to another. As we discussed in the previous post, each sense can measure a different property, but the object is the combination of all these properties. So, to know all the properties, something must move the attention, and that attention moving instrument is the mind that focuses on different senses one by one.
Three Aspects of the Senses
Our senses are not always interacting with the bhuta and tanmatra. Even though our eyes may be open, we might not see. Even though sound may reach our ears, we might not hear. This leads to the question about how ‘attention’ is created. Apart from this silent discarding of sense data, there is active seeking of sensation. For example, we seek certain types of sounds, colors, tastes, smells, etc. This active seeking is due to our desires, and the senses have a hunger for sensation. Anyone who has tried to control the senses and the mind realizes that it is a very difficult process. Why should sense control be difficult if senses are only measuring instruments that observe the world?
Both the absence of attention when sensations could be present, and the active pursuit of sensations when they may not be present, requires us to expand our understanding of senses and divide it into three parts, which correspond to the three tendencies of the soul—namely, sat, chit, and ananda. The chit is the easiest to understand; it represents the concept of sight and the activity of seeing (the chit is said to have knowledge and action components). The activity of seeing is a causal interaction between the organ and the external reality. The result of this interaction is the knoweldge representation. We combine the two to say that chit involves knowledge and activity.
However, to perceive something, we must attach the sense to the tanmatra and the bhuta. We don’t see when the eyes are open because the sense doesn’t attach to the representation. Similarly, the senses may see, but the mind might put this sensation into the ‘background’ mode. For example, you may be vaguely aware of other voices while talking to someone in a crowded room.
Thus, due to the movement of the mind (over the different senses) we may ignore some sensations that exist in the world. Similarly, due to motion of the senses, I may not hear someone’s voice because my ears are focusing on another person’s voice. The motion of the mind is different from the motion of the senses, but they produce similar kinds of effects. The motion of the senses over different sense perceivable bhuta and tanmatra represents sat or what we call ‘consciousness’. Similarly, the motion of the mind over the senses (which may themselves be moving over different bhuta and tanmatra) also constitutes ‘consciousness’. They are respectively the sat of the senses and of the mind.
Finally, the ananda of the senses is the hunger for sense perception due to which the senses are driven toward certain types of tanmatra and bhuta. So, the ananda or desire drives the sat or motion of consciousness, which results in a causal interaction (activity of chit) which creates a representation (knowledge of chit). We experience the knowledge, but the previous stages remain obscure.
The Transparency of Mental States
During the waking state, even though the senses interact with the representation of the external world in the brain, we don’t think we are seeing a picture of the world within the brain. We rather think that we are directly seeing the external world. This is called the transparency of mental states and leads to the question of why the map is experienced as the territory. The short answer is that the chit of sense attaches to the brain representation but the sat is still directed outwardly and establishes a connection to the external world.
This is a subtle issue that arises due to atomic theory in which two material particles interact bidirectionally rather than unidirectionally. In classical physics, light is a wave that moves in one direction. In atomic theory, this wave is a particle, and this combination of wave and particle forces us to describe it as a stationary wave that has two components moving in opposite directions (it is no longer a wave spreading uniformly in space, but like a vibrating string that is confined to a finite location in space). We can say that while the bhuta and tanmatra are entering the eyes, the eyes are reaching out to the bhuta and tanmatra. The bidirectional interaction must occur simultaneously, which means that before light can enter our eyes, there must be a relation between the eyes and the thing that is subsequently perceived.
In Vedic philosophy it is said that first there is sambandha or relation, and then there is abhidheya or exchange. This abhidheya is cognition, but it is preceded by a relationship. The senses establish a relation to the external world and are outwardly drawn, following which there is an interaction between the external bhuta and tanmatra and the sense organs which creates a representation, which then results in a cognition. In a sense, we decide the thing we are going to know before we know it. Since the relation is direct but the cognition is indirect, the waking experience is not a precise understanding of the external world. The dreaming experience is far more precise.
The feeling of transparency during the waking state arises because our relationship is to the external world, so we think that we are knowing the external reality, even though what we actually perceive is the brain representation. In short, the sat is pointing externally and we can say that our consciousness is outwardly drawn, but the chit is focused within the brain and the cognition is based on that. During the dreaming experience, both the sat and the chit are drawn outwardly, so the feeling of transparency is more real in this case.
Many Kinds of Motion
Note how I have used the analogies of motion and applied them to senses and the mind, because there are many kinds of motions. Modern science studies motion in the external world. Sāñkhya, however, indicates how senses move from one bhuta and tanmatra to another and how the mind moves from one sense to another. To study these new kinds of motion—and create new sciences—we need to understand our perception. This science is relevant materially because it becomes possible to explore how the mind and senses can attach to unseen realities. The same science is relevant spiritually because by knowing the sensual/mental motion we can learn to stop it!
Sense control is difficult because lust resides in the senses. This lust is not under conscious control. Rather, it pushes the consciousness in the senses toward different bhuta and tanmatra, and therefore the person is driven by this lust as if he or she lacks free will. As we have discussed in an earlier post, even though free will exists in this world, it is practically very difficult to see its effects because of material desires. These desires force us into different directions and are compared to horses pulling a chariot in different directions.
Sense and Mind Control
Many methods are described to obtain control over the senses. One method says that to control the senses, we must control the mind. If we focus the mind and make it steady, such that it stops moving over the different senses, then the senses will also stop moving—even though there is desire. This method forms the astanga-yoga process, but it is very hard to control the mind. In fact, the desires of the senses are so strong that they drag the mind as well. Due to these desires it becomes hard to control the senses, or withdraw them from perception, because they are constantly seeking to unite with certain types of bhuta. And the sense motion then causes the mind to also move.
Another method called buddhi-yoga or jnana-yoga says that we should try to control the intellect and focus it only that which is eternal and true, rather than which is ephemeral and false. We might note here that the senses obtain different sensations and the mind combines them together into an object (as discussed in an earlier post). The intellect then perceives this object as a concept. For instance, the senses might perceive some red, round, and sweet. The mind then combines them into an object. And the intellect then (through recall from memory) recognizes it as an apple. If we can control the intellect through knowledge, and stop the motion through different ideas, then we can focus the mind, which will then control the senses, and hence stop the incessant dragging by desires. The problem here is that the acquisition of knowledge is itself hindered by constant distractions produced by the senses and the mind. Therefore, to acquire firm knowledge—before we can use it to control the mind and the senses—becomes a very long-drawn process, and therefore not always effective.
Finally, bhakti-yoga recognizes the existence of desires in the senses, mind, and the intellect, and doesn’t profess us to discard them. It says that we should transform these desires from lust to love. Lust is selfish, and love is unselfish. When desires are selfish, they are frustrated because there is constant conflict between my desires and the desires of other individuals. If, however, the desires are unselfish, then this contradiction between various desires is resolved, and a stability is produced. Thus, the mind and senses are focused because the desires are satisfied rather than frustrated. This is also sense and mind control, but achieved by their transformation from lust to love.
The primary purpose of the Vedic descriptions is to attain this sense and mind control and engagement. But underlying this purpose is the understanding of different kinds of motions of the body, senses, mind, and intellect, which can also be scientifically studied.
Since the beginning of science, nature was believed to be controlled by some laws which can be used to make predictions about the future independent of the individual observers. The observers cannot have choices because through these choices the future could be changed, in contradiction to the laws of nature. Therefore, if free will exists, then there cannot be predictive laws of nature. Conversely, if there are laws of nature, then there cannot be free will. If there is no free will, then there is no soul. And if there is no soul then there is no God. So, the mere existence of natural laws entails atheism. This post discusses this problem and shows how science is possible even though free will exists.
Manifest and Unmanifest Matter
Matter in the Vedic view is described as unmanifest prior to creation. During the creation, matter becomes manifest. The terms ‘manifest’ and ‘unmanifest’ refer to our experience. The technical terms used to describe manifest and unmanifest are vyakta or ‘expressed’ and avyakta or ‘unexpressed’. The Vedic thesis is that matter exists even before the creation, but it is not observable. The manifest universe is the experience of what lies unobservable prior to experience. Matter is therefore eternal; however, the material experience is temporary.
So, the reality underlying the observation is unmanifest or unobservable, and the soul has an experience due to which this matter is said to become manifest.
A different way to state the same thesis is that matter is a possibility and there are infinite possibilities. By its choice, the soul selects some possibilities to create his experience. All experience is therefore the combination of possibility and choice. This idea has a counterpart in atomic theory where matter is a possibility, but choices convert it into an observation. How the possibility becomes an observation is unknown in science and the central problem concerns choice. If we say that choice interacts with matter to select a possibility, then by choice we can change our experiences. Since the goal of science is to predict our experiences, natural laws will be useless if these predictions were based on choice.
Therefore, even if science only describes matter as a possibility, and the description is incomplete without choice, there is a fundamental anathema to accepting that choices might select these possibilities because admitting choice would render science useless in predicting our experiences. Each observer may make a different choice and thereby change their experience by that choice.
This is the fundamental conundrum of free will in science. If we accept free will as a causal agent, it renders scientific laws completely irrelevant. If instead we don’t accept free will as a causal agent, then science remains fundamentally incomplete—describing only possibility but not observation.
A Materialistic Solution to the Problem
There is hence a natural scientific necessity for claiming that free will is also material, and hence can be studied within science. In short, what we call free will must also be predictable using the laws of nature. There is tremendous impetus toward this predictability not just because we don’t want to admit that we are spiritual beings with free will, but also because with free will science itself would collapse.
Under this impetus, there are attempts to suppose that choice may be created by some material phenomena and what we call ‘consciousness’ may eventually arise due to some material arrangement. For example, there is a strong belief today that consciousness is a property of the brain, the brain is cells, which are in turn comprised of molecules, which are then governed by atomic theory. The only problem is that when this reduction is performed, we end up with atomic particles, which are only described as possibility. Therefore, the whole brain is only a possibility without any experience.
Now it becomes necessary to postulate that perhaps consciousness is another category of matter (because we want to save scientific predictions) although different from the matter studied within science (because this matter is at best described only as a possibility rather than experience).
The Solution in Vedic Philosophy
This materialistic solution to the problem of free will is essentially correct according to Vedic philosophy, although in a limited sense. What we call ‘free will’ is called guna or material desire in Vedic texts. Material desire has little to do with the soul or its free will. The guna automatically (under the influence of time) produce desires for the soul to evaluate. The soul can potentially reject these desires, but the soul cannot create new ones. Therefore, it is sometimes said (following Benjamin Libet) that the soul has free won’t rather than free will. Matter proposes and the soul disposes. Matter gives rise to desires and the soul simply succumbs to these desires. Even if the soul rejects the automatically created desires, due to the persistent nature of guna, the same desires will be created again and again. Under this persistent onslaught of automatically created desires, the soul will eventually succumb.
It is very hard to change one’s guna and the process of this change is very prolonged. Typically, most souls don’t have the strength to reject these repeated exhortations of matter, and as the soul succumbs to the repeated push from material desires, it surrenders its free will to matter. Basically, the soul stops rejecting the automatically created material desires, accepts these desires to be his free will, and hence comes totally under the control of material nature which is under the control of time.
Therefore, even though the soul has a free will by which it can reject the proposals of material guna, in practice, this free will is almost never observed in the material world. The guna are said to be like ropes which drag the soul through successive desires, and the soul is therefore said to be ‘bound’ by material desire. Since the material desire is controlled by time, the succession of desires created in a person is also under control of natural laws—although these laws involve a different kind of matter.
To truly demonstrate one’s free will, one needs the strength of rejection. This strength comes to the soul only when it develops a complete disdain for material desires and this disdain is possible only when one acquires a higher taste different from material desire. Material desire is essentially selfishness or how I can be happy. The rejection of this material desire involves the unselfish attitude of pleasing God. Once the soul develops love of God, then material desires are naturally rejected. Without the love of God, the soul may sometimes rise due to its own effort by rejecting material desire, but it eventually falls back into the material cesspool because at some point the free will is replaced by material desire. Vedic texts are replete with narrations of many sages who fall after thousands of years of austerity.
Relevance to Material Science
Matter in Vedic philosophy is of three broad categories. These are called śakti, prakriti, and māyā. What modern science considers ‘matter’ is prakriti and it exists as an ability to know and do things. This type of matter is studied in modern science, and atomic theory models it as possibilities.
In addition to these possibilities there are two other material categories—guna and karma. The former is also called māyā and it creates material desires, and the latter is also called śakti and it creates opportunities.
An actual experience is the combination of ability, desire, and opportunity. For example, to fulfill your desire to taste good food, you must have the ability (e.g. a tongue to taste), you must have the desire to eat a certain type of food (otherwise you will not enjoy the experience) and there must be opportunity to get tasty food (otherwise ability will not be utilized and desire will remain unfulfilled). All these three material categories must combine to create an experience, and they are all controlled by time.
Since the ability is separate from desire, what we call ‘possibility’ in atomic theory is different from what we call ‘choice’. Choice and possibility remain central to modern atomic theory where it is supposed that some choice ‘collapses’ the quantum wave function. However, these two categories are insufficient because karma or opportunity must also be present in addition to ability and choice. That is, you may have a suitable tongue to taste food, and you may have desire to taste this food, but without the opportunity to access this tasty food (which is enabled due to karma), you can’t taste.
Modern science is stuck at present because it considers only one type of matter, which too exists only as a possibility. To solve the problem in modern science, the notion of matter must be expanded to include guna and karma or desiring and deserving, and then these three ideas should be combined.
Our material experience is completely under the laws of nature because what we call ‘choice’ is material desire produced by guna under the control of time. Quantum problems don’t entail a transcendent consciousness or free will, but a new type of material cause called guna which must be accompanied by karma. Expanding the understanding of matter from ability to desire and opportunity is the first step. To the extent that the soul has free will, but it is subordinated to material desire, the effects of these desires cannot be equated to the soul’s free will, nor can these be equated to the atoms of modern science. Nevertheless, there is an explanation of material desire within the broad framework of materialism.
Why Do We Need the Soul?
Now, a materialist can argue that if scientific laws of nature can completely predict the future (because the soul has lost his choice under material influence) then why do we even need to postulate the existence of the soul? Might we not just say that there is material desire (which is, after all, just matter) and there is no soul? Similarly, if there is no soul, there is also no need for God. Science can be consistent and complete without the need for postulating the existence of soul and God.
There are three kinds of answers to this quandary. First, even if there is no soul and God, just to complete material science, one needs additional concepts of desiring and deserving. Therefore, matter has goals or desires, and there are consequences of actions under these desires which are deserving. So, the material science that will be predictively complete (regarding experiences) will not be anything like current science which is without a purpose and without a consequence of actions. Furthermore, since there are three categories of matter, the soul becomes necessary to explain why three categories must be combined. The material categories exist and evolve independently; the soul is required to combine them. Since the experience stems out of this combination, therefore the soul is necessary.
Second, the divide between matter and soul is not as stark as we generally like to think because the three aspects of the soul are present in matter as well. When we study matter in terms of these three categories, then we can arrive at the understanding that matter is like a soul. In Vedic philosophy, śakti, prakriti, and māyā are all personalities or souls, acting under the control of time, so matter is also a soul. These souls have free will, which is subordinated to time and therefore nature doesn’t behave randomly (which would be the case if matter itself had free will). The order in nature comes because the three parts of matter are individually manifested and combined under the influence of time.
It follows that what we call the ‘laws’ of nature or the order in nature is caused by time. As an aside, this time is not an effect (i.e. the changes we observe) but the cause of changes (i.e. the agency that manifests the three unmanifest types of matter and combines them). There is hence choice involved in this unmanifest-to-manifest conversion and the combination of these manifest realities. This choice originates in a personality called Lord Shiva. Hence Lord Shiva is God of material nature. He is the reason why nature appears orderly because His choices have a regular pattern and are not random. Those studying the order in nature can therefore be said to ultimately be studying the nature of Lord Shiva.
Lord Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of Cosmic Dance) at the CERN nuclear research lab in Switzerland
Third, due to time, the same kind of desires, abilities, and opportunities will arise in many living beings at the same time. Therefore, even if a particular soul doesn’t succumb to a particular desire, ability, and opportunity, someone in the universe will, and they will create the relevant experience. Therefore, God becomes necessary in transitioning the possibilities into separated realities, and the soul becomes necessary to combine these separated realities into their personal experience. The explanation in matter—despite the fact that there is material desire—remains incomplete without the soul and God, once we delve into the details of how three types of possibilities are converted into reality, and how these three forms of reality combine to create an experience. So, the fact that there is material desire which causes the changes in the world cannot be taken to replace the notion of soul and God.
Free Will and Universalism
Early philosophers of science were eager to remove free will from the study of nature because they thought that by free will each person will freely interpret and understand reality in their own way and this personalized understanding of reality cannot be considered real because it is not universal. Philosophers of science thought that an understanding of reality that is forced upon us by nature is better because this reality would be free of the biases of the individual free will.
This desire to remove free will—to obtain unbiased knowledge of nature—is a fundamentally flawed goal because it makes the observer a blank slate incapable of interpreting and choosing. If the observer is not a blank slate, then there is no universal knowledge, although there is a universal reality.
This universal reality can be known in a personal way by interpretation. We can compare this interpretation to a reflection in a mirror. There is an external object to be known, which constitutes the reality. But there is also a mirror of the individual soul which reflects this reality. Since there are infinite mirrors, there are potentially infinite representations of an Absolute Reality, which constitute the interpretations of that reality. These individual mirrors can be clean or unclean. If the mirror is unclean, the same Absolute Reality is distorted in the process of interpretation, and the reality becomes an illusion. However, even in that illusion there is some inkling of reality because even the illusion reflects reality. Therefore, God is present even in the illusory experience, although not seen clearly.
Vedic texts describe that the mirror of the observer has many layers which represent the reality at many levels. These levels are called objects, sensations, things, concepts, intentions, morals, etc. and form the hierarchy of our experience. When the mirror is unclean, the deeper levels of reality are not perceived because of which we think (as in the case of modern science) that reality is only objects. The cleansing of the mirror entails that deeper levels of reality gradually become visible. All these levels of reality form a tree—from root to leaves—so cleansing means the root is seen in addition to leaves.
However, even when the mirror is fully clean, the soul can perceive only a very small subset of the entire tree. This subset constitutes the soul’s perspective or interpretation of reality. It is complete in one sense that the connection from the leaf to the root is visible. It is incomplete in another sense that all the branches emanating from the root to the leaf are absent from the perceived reflection.
The soul is said to be anu or small, which means it cannot reflect the entire reality. Furthermore, under the illusory experience, even the connection of the leaf to the root is not seen. When the mirror is cleaned, the connection to the root is visible, but every branch emanating from the root is not. Therefore, even in the purified state there is a perspective which represents the soul’s personality and individuality. Since the soul never has every possible experience, the individual soul and the universal soul are never identical. This limited experience of reality is however not illusion. It is only part of the whole truth. The part of the whole that we experience constitutes our free will.
Under material desire—i.e. selfishness—we ignore the existence of God, and we get a partial understanding of a single branch (which is a part of the tree). There is factually no free will other than the fact that we have chosen to be selfish. Once this choice is made, material desire expands this selfishness into many kinds of selfish endeavors, and the soul loses control. However, when the selfishness is discarded, then true free will is discovered, which becomes our perspective.
In the final analysis, our ability to interpret can never be given up; it constitutes our personality. The whole truth is the sum of all the perspectives about that truth. God’s free will is that He is the Absolute Truth, and the soul’s free will is that it is a certain perspective on that Absolute Truth. The free will is real but only in relation to God. In relation to matter, this free will is controlled by laws of nature.
Free Will is Real Despite Material Determinism
Hence the fact that we can observe order in nature doesn’t deny free will, and the fact that current science is causally incomplete doesn’t necessarily created a room for free will. Material science can be made complete by expanding the notion of matter. This is not free will but material desire.
The combination of ability, opportunity, and desire produces an experience, and the succession of these experiences constitute a trajectory. This trajectory is called the reincarnation of the soul through diverse experiences (the body and mind are just experiences of the soul). In modern science, we draw such trajectories and then postulate the existence of a particle which is never scientifically observed. There is a subtle but important difference between the trajectory and the particle; the particle is a unique individual object, and the trajectory is the phenomenal observation of this individuality.
The notion of a particle arises because there are multiple properties—e.g. mass and charge of a particle—that must be combined into a single entity. In the same way, the soul is the ‘particle’ underlying the trajectory (or succession) of experiences because there are three properties (ability, opportunity, and desire) that must be combined. Nevertheless, since the particle in science remains inert (the causality is only in the properties such as mass and charge) similarly the notion of combining the properties is only a theoretical necessity rather than an empirically observable fact.
Science—if it is restricted to experiences—can only tell us about the trajectories, not the particles. But just as it is scientifically convenient to say that there is a particle underlying the trajectory, similarly, it can be scientifically convenient to say that there is a soul underlying the succession of experiences. It doesn’t prove the existence of the soul, just as the particles of science remain unproven.
To truly know the soul, one must transcend the material experience. That is, one must say that I want to change the course of my trajectory by choosing another trajectory. Material laws will not allow the self-driven change in trajectory, which is why this change must be outside scientific prediction.
Since trajectories can be changed due to material desire, to know that this change is due to free will, one must be free of material desire. To the naïve observer—who doesn’t know the difference between material desire and free will—the effects of both will appear to be the same. Only a person who has become free of material desire will know the difference between the determinism of material desire and the independence of free will. The acceptance of material desire to explain material trajectories fixes the current flawed notion that because matter is possibility, so material desire is free will. As we advance the idea of matter from abilities to material desires, we come closer to distinguishing material desire from free will. Both look like ‘choice’ but the former is determined, and the latter is free.