The Mind-Body Problem in Indian Philosophy

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Two Mind-Body Problems

The Mind-Body problem in Western philosophy concerns the difficulty in conceiving the nature of the interaction between mind and body, considering that these two are supposed to be different substances—one physical and material while the other spiritual or mystical. In Indian philosophy, matter itself transforms into the spirit and how this transformation occurs poses a serious problem.

In Western philosophy, everything that can be seen, tasted, touched, smelt, or heard is material because it is extended in space and time. In Indian philosophy, many such things—such as scripture, deities, and spiritualists—are actually spiritual. The fact that scripture is made up of paper and ink, that deities may be made out of metal, clay, or wood, or that the body of a spiritualist is fed by water, food, and air, does not make them material. If the interaction between matter and spirit is problematic in Western philosophy, then how matter becomes spirit (or vice versa) is even more problematic in Indian philosophy. The solutions to these two problems, however, dramatically alter our understanding of the distinction between matter and spirit. Let’s take a closer look at the solutions.

The Cartesian Mind-Body Problem

The Mind-Body problem in Western philosophy arises due to a fundamental divide between ideas and things. During Plato’s time, the ideas were supposed to exist in a different world—called the Platonic world. Aristotle brought the ideas into the present world by distinguishing between substance and form (the form was supposed to be the idea). Descartes then separated them into mind and body. Whichever way we look at this problem, there are two things—matter and ideas—and how they interact presents a problem of categorical opposition between them, and the problem is still unsolved today.

In Indian philosophy, the divide between matter and ideas does not exist because material objects are also ideas rather than substances. The mind is abstract ideas, while matter is contingent ideas. For instance, the mind can hold the idea of a car as an abstraction. As this idea is refined by adding more and more details, we obtain the design of a specific type of car (e.g., sedan, wagon, sports and utility vehicle, hatchback, etc.), followed by the selection of materials that implement that design. The materials that make up a car (plastic, metal, wood, foam, leather, etc.) are also ideas and not things. They are of course more refined ideas relative to the ideas in the mind, but they are ideas nevertheless.

There is, hence, no mind-body problem, or, alternatively, there are many such mind-body problems. Every time information is added to an abstract idea, a new contingent idea is produced. The abstract is the mind and the contingent is matter. The interaction between mind and body is simply the interaction between two units of information. The causality of this interaction has to be modeled in a new way than forces between material particles, and this causality represents a new kind of science, different from current material science.

The Spirit-Matter Divide

However, when this mind-body problem is solved, a new kind of spirit-matter problem is created. The genesis of the latter problem is that both mind and body in Indian philosophy can be material or spiritual. The fact that we can see, taste, touch, smell, or hear something does not by itself make it material. The deities are not material even though they are made of metal, wood, or clay. The scripture is not material even though it is made out of ink and paper. The body of a spiritualist is not material even though it eats, breathes, and drinks. How can matter convert into the spirit? Note that this problem is not the mind-body problem of Western philosophy because in Indian philosophy both mind and body can be material or spiritual. However, in so far as people generally equate spirit and matter as mind and body, I have used similar terminology.

The solution to this problem rests on the solution to the Cartesian mind-body problem. As noted above, the Cartesian mind-body problem is solved when both mind and body are treated as ideas. However, these ideas can be true or false. The body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, etc., are material when they are mistaken. For instance, there can be visual illusions, cognitive misperceptions, intentional cheating, and moral misjudgments. By contrast, when all these mistakes are corrected, the thing is spiritual. Spirit and matter are therefore not in separate worlds; rather, they are different as truth and illusion.

The transformation of matter to spirit occurs when falsities are converted into truths. In essence, this means that ideas must now reflect the nature of reality. Since both matter and spirit encode ideas, the vocabulary used to encode material and spiritual ideas does not need to change. However, the combination of these elemental memes to produce propositions can be true or false. This means that matter and spirit comprise the same memes but the true memes are denied in matter.

Illusion Exists Objectively

This denial occurs because there is a kind of subtle matter that transforms reality into an illusion—this is called māya. The crucial point is that illusion, lies, falsities, and misperceptions exist. This is essential because in modern science false cannot exist, and if something exists, it must also be true. Science, therefore, equates existence with truth, and this is a huge problem. I can think that the sky is purple and that thought exists, but it is not true. So, existence is not identical to the truth. The material world exists, but in so far as it is material it is also false. This means that it comprises false propositions—e.g., that the sky is purple. Something about everything in the material world is a mistake.

This is asserted in the Vedānta Sutra aphorism: brahma satyam, jagat mithya. I am true, but the (material) world is false. Or, my existence indicates its truth, but the world’s existence indicates it is false. Of course, this is, in one sense, an oversimplification, because not everything in the world is false, and not everything in the world is material (material being equated to falsities). The impersonalist claims that everything in the material world is material and therefore false, which means that even scripture, deities, and spiritualists must be false. This is the wrong position. If there were no truth in this world, then we could not know the truth from the world and never get out of illusion. Therefore, this aphorism has to be understood as a generic statement of the nature of the world by and large.

By and large, everything in the material world is material (i.e. false). But there are some things (i.e. scripture) that are spiritual (i.e. true). The paper and ink, therefore, don’t make something material. It is the truth condition of that proposition that is material or spiritual.

The Problem of Temporariness

However, this is still not a complete understanding of matter because both truths and falsities in the present world are temporary. That is, even though truths exist in the world, they are not permanent. This creates a big problem because the truth is supposed to be eternal. How can truth be lost? How can it disappear and has to be reestablished? Isn’t the truth that which can never be destroyed?

This is a very profound problem and connected to the fact that truths are eternal but are occasionally manifested by time. Falsities are fundamentally temporary but they are manufactured by time. There is a subtle but very important difference between manifesting and manufacturing. Truths are only manifest and unmanifest, but falsities are created and destroyed.

Science—when it is revised to explicate the nature of meanings—can discuss the creation and destruction of false ideas. While this will be an explanation of illusion, it will establish a very fundamental fact—namely that objects are meanings, and they can be true and false. Ultimately, matter is false and spirit is true. The truth can be manifest or unmanifest. This manifestation (or unmanifestation) of truths is different from the production of falsities by the material process.

When a deity is broken, a scripture is burnt, or a spiritualist dies, they become unmanifest. When a deity is established, a scripture is authored and a spiritualist is born, they become manifest. This manifestation and unmanifestation is not the creation and destruction of material objects. For that reason, the manifested things are not material because they are produced from a non-material process.

Three Stages of Understanding Matter

Most people think that matter is the stuff that makes up tables and chairs, and this creates the problem that if the mind is unlike tables and chairs then it could not be material, which then leads to the issue of mind-body interaction. To solve this problem, we have to revise the notion of matter to something that is not things but meanings. If the table and the idea of the table are both meanings—one abstract and the other contingent—then there is no fundamental problem in supposing that mind is material.

Once matter is meanings, then those meanings can be true or false. The distinction between matter and spirit now rests on the notion of matter as false meanings. The paper, metal, or wood is therefore not matter. Eating, sleeping, speaking, walking, and talking are not material. It is rather the truth of meanings represented by that paper, metal, wood, or activity that makes it material or spiritual.

This is still incomplete. Even further, we must understand that in the present world even true things are not permanently manifest, even though the truth is eternal. To realize this, we must develop a new understanding of how truths and falsities are different in how they appear and disappear in the world. When a true statement is made in paper, wood, or metal, its production involves a different process than the production of a false statement. The false statement is manufactured in real-time, while the true statement always existed semantically but it has been only manifested in time physically.

Implications for Epistemology

This brings us to a very profound conclusion about the process of knowledge: if truths are manifest while falsities are created, then everything created as an effect of time must be false. Only things that are manifested (but not created as the effect of time) can be true. This is incredibly important for the method of knowledge because it means that the understanding of nature obtained by the senses, mind, intellect, etc., are always false because they are produced as an effect of time. If you believe that senses, mind, intellect, etc., are material and governed by the laws of nature, then these laws will always produce falsities because the process of idea creation in matter will always create falsities.

The only way truths can be known in the present world is if they are manifest rather than created. The manifest ideas are eternal and true, but they are incarnated in the present world by a different process than the process by which ordinary things and ideas are produced (or destroyed) under time.

In Plato’s philosophy, there is a world of ideas that descends into matter; however, there is no distinction between true and false ideas. Plato’s world, therefore, comprises both truths and falsities and since that world is not affected by time, both truths and falsities must be eternal.

In Indian philosophy, there is indeed a world of eternal ideas, devoid of time, but this world only comprises true ideas. True ideas can descend into the present world, but not everything in the material world is descended. Things that are not descended but manufactured under the influence of time must automatically be false because the process of idea creation under the control of time only produces false ideas (since that process only acts upon māya, which is false ideas).

Can Science Give Us the Truth?

Modern science is defined as the use of creativity, reason, and experience to generate theories of nature; if these theories stand up to the tests of reason and experience, then the theories are true. Modern science, however, cannot deal in meanings because matter is currently defined as things rather than ideas, and this difference leads to problems of incompleteness in science because all ideas can be things but all things cannot be ideas (the ideas are always semantically well-formed but all things are not semantically well-formed—e.g., it is possible to frame a meaningless sentence such as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”). In a new science where the world is defined as ideas rather than things, it would be possible to overcome this incompleteness that arises when ideas are described as things. Such a science will establish the fact that the world is ideas. However, even this science will only explain the production of false ideas, because the material process only produces falsities.

To know the nature of truth, the nature of science itself has to be redefined. In this new definition, there will be reason and experience but no creativity. Reason and experience will be used to verify the nature of truth, but they will not be used to discover the nature of truth. There is a fundamental difference between verification and discovery and it is called the P=NP problem in computing. For instance, it is very easy to verify the password of a computer but it is much harder to crack the password by trial and error. When the machine that is trying to crack the passwords can only come up with wrong passwords (because the mechanism is a denial of truth), then the password can never be cracked. If, however, you were told about the correct password, then reason and experience can be easily used to verify it. I describe this crucial difference between discovery and verification more in-depth in Uncommon Wisdom.

The question for science therefore is: are we trying to crack the password or trying to verify it?

Developments in science—specifically the semantic view of nature—will entail that the password can never be cracked because the process of password generation will only produce wrong passwords. However, if the password is obtained through a descending process, then it can be easily verified. The science that tries to generate a password and then tries to verify it can therefore never be successful. However, a science that takes the true password can still verify it quickly. The key question now is: From where can we obtain the secrets of nature which are not generated by time?

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Mind-Body Problem in Indian Philosophy," in Shabda Journal, May 17, 2015,