Can We Know Reality Without Changing It?

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Introduction and Overview

The modern atomic theory describes perception as a change both to reality and to our perception. For instance, when we see the redness of an apple, light impinges on the apple, is absorbed by the atoms in the apple, and then emitted. The color perceived by the eyes is due to the light that is emitted. This model of perception requires a physical particle (a photon) traveling from the apple to the eyes, which presents a deep philosophical problem of perception in that we cannot know the world without changing it. In the case of seeing an apple, the electrons in the atoms must first absorb light and then emit it, thus changing their physical state twice. This article discusses this philosophical issue and how it is addressed in Sāńkhya.

Classical and Quantum Models of Perception

In classical physics, light was reflected from an object and our perception of the world was based on this reflection. In atomic physics, light is absorbed and emitted (rather than reflected), and the perception is due to that emission. In some cases, light may also be diffracted (i.e. its path may be changed due to an electromagnetic or gravitational force) and in such cases too some of the energy in the light may be borrowed from the field that causes the diffraction. In both cases (when light is diffracted and when it is emitted and absorbed) the world that we are observing is changed in the act of observation.

The simplest model of change involves an electron that “jumps” to a higher energy state while absorbing the energy. It then “falls” back to the lower energy state emitting the photon which is then said to be the cause of the vision. The observation of light, therefore, doesn’t accurately tell us about the true state of the electron. It rather only measures the difference between the two states of higher and lower energy. If we were to treat this analogously to a person standing on a staircase, we cannot know from observation how high a person is standing on a staircase, although we can know the height to the next higher stair when the person jumps and returns back to the previous stair.

Problems in the Quantum Observation Model

You can argue that the stairs of energy in an atom are not equidistant and each of the stairs has a different distance to the previous stair. So simply by observing the distance between the stairs, we can know the stair. But this claim helps only under the idealization of isolated atoms. There are situations in which such idealizations may not work as we expect them to. For example, an electron may jump two levels higher, and then we would observe either a single large emission or two successive emissions, on the way back. Conversely, the electron may jump one level at a time, and then jump back two levels. Since all jumps are “atomic” there is no way of knowing if they represent two distinct levels or a single transition that combines two levels.

Similarly, energy absorption in an atom can cause a more widespread change than simply to the state of a single electron. In larger molecules for instance the electron states are “hybridized” across many atoms, which means that the electron is not “bound” to an atom, but rather to a “molecule” as a whole. When an electron absorbs energy, therefore, the result can be a reconfiguration in the atom, or the molecule, or the lattice. In the new state, the new electron energies will also differ, as a result of which the electron may not even return back to the original state, which makes the absorption an irreversible process.

In essence, when observation depends on changing the world, then there is no limit to how much change could be created before we see the effects of such change. Decoding what the original state was, from the observed consequences, is an indeterministic problem. The issue is not just that the electron is jumping from one stair to another, but also that the staircase as a whole is changing (thus modifying the heights of the different stairs) in the process of this state transition.

The Problem of Underdetermination

If scientific observation modifies reality in substantive ways, then we are left with a guessing game about the nature of reality based on the observation. As a system grows more complex, there are infinite guesses compatible with the observation, and you have no other way of knowing which of these guesses is true. Empiricism, under this situation, has to be modified: reality is underdetermined by observation, because of the process of observing changes reality. This is a fundamental problem because it entails that we can never know the true nature of reality through observation and experiment.

For instance, when I say that “the apple is red” I really don’t know if this is because some red light is reflected and refracted, or because one frequency is absorbed and a different frequency is emitted, whether the process is localized or spread, and whether it is reversible or irreversible. The observation can be explained in many ways and we can’t know which one is true.

The Three Modes of Knowledge

From the above, we can discern at least three types of knowledge. First, we can imagine an ideal form of knowledge in which we know the world just as it exists prior to our knowing, and the process of knowing doesn’t change the world. Second, we can imagine a form of knowledge that we create in order to know the world in a certain way; the case when we irradiate an atom causing it to emit a certain light frequency falls under this scenario; we are changing the world in order to know it, but at least we understand what we are changing in order to elicit the desired response. Third, we can see a form of knowledge that is more like ignorance because while we can guess the nature of reality, your guess is as good as mine.

In Sāńkhya, these three forms of knowledge are respectively called sattva-guna, rajo-guna, and tamo-guna. The knowledge under sattva-guna is real knowledge because it doesn’t change the observed reality. The knowledge under rajo-guna is the knowledge that we create by our actions to obtain a certain kind of intended response. The knowledge under tamo-guna is ignorance because we are befuddled about what the true nature of reality is. The current quantum theory falls in the third state.

Knowledge in the Mode of Sattva-Guna

I will devote the rest of this post to discussing the knowledge that arises without modifying the world, and without guesswork on its true state. I will also discuss how such empiricism is possible and supported by the Sāńkhya view on matter.

It’s noteworthy that when we see, we don’t expect changes to the world, but we do expect changes to the eyes. Therefore, the problem of perception would not arise if the eyes were “reaching out” to the object to see, instead of the object “reaching out” to the eyes to create vision. In current theories of perception, the world enters our eyes through an electromagnetic force. But we can imagine a theory of perception in which the opposite happens—the eyes enter the world. In the current theory of perception, we have no choice over whether we see the world as long as we are looking in the same direction because light will impinge our eyes. In the new theory—where eyes enter the world—we can avoid seeing the world even when we are facing the world. This is indeed how observation works in Sāńkhya.

The vision is created by the eyes attaching to the material object. The material information does not go from the object to the senses. Rather the senses go to the material object. The senses pull information, rather than being pushed to receive information. Thus for sensation to occur, the senses attach to the material object. Thus, “light” is not going from the object to the eyes. Rather, the eyes are emitting the “light” to attach to the world. Thus, if your eyes were better developed, you would see the world better. On the other hand, if your eyes are not developed you would not see—not because light is not being processed by the eyes (as in the current theory of perception), but because the eyes are not reaching out to see.

The causality of the senses of action is the push model of causality where the action is “pushed” from the sense into the world. The causality of the senses of knowledge is the pull model of causality where the action is “pulled” from the world by the sense. Modern science uses push and pull forces, but when it comes to perception, it employs the push model—i.e. the world “pushes” sensations into us and therefore the observer has no role in knowledge because the sensations are forced on us.

If the knowledge is not “coming to us” but rather being “sought by us” then what we are seeing is what we want to see, or what we seek in this world. If we don’t seek it, we won’t see it. To seek, we have to scout for the reality that we wish to perceive rather than the reality arriving uninvited to us.

Why Do We Feel Someone’s Stare?

Many of us have the ability to perceive someone’s stare, even when we don’t see them. In the current model of causality, this should be impossible because the light goes from my body to the eyes of the person who is staring. Since there isn’t a reverse causal interaction (from the person who is staring at my body), I should have no way of knowing if they are indeed staring at me.

In the Sāńkhya model, we feel the stare because the eyes of the person staring enter our body. We feel that our privacy has been invaded because it is invaded by the other person’s eyes. Many people who have interacted with spiritually advanced personalities report having the experience of feeling “naked” in front of them. This is an example of advanced perception in which the eyes enter the thing being observed, creating a sense of discomfort (if we want the mental state to remain hidden) or a sense of relief (if we want someone to truly know us).

If someone is only looking at the skin, we can feel comfortable under their stare, because they can’t see what is “inside”. But if someone can see deeper than the skin, into our senses, mind, intellect, ego, and morality, then we cannot hide from their perception. They can answer the questions we haven’t asked, they can see what we are about to do before we do it, and they can change our thinking at profound depths.

Three Kinds of Perception Revisited

Perception in the mode of sattva-guna is when the eyes enter the observed reality; the observed matter is not changing state (i.e. falling and rising in energy states) but the senses of the observer are attached to the matter being observed. The senses can attach over great distances, enabling the person to see what is far away, not merely in front of the observer. The world is not coming to us; we are reaching out to the world that we want to see, and we can see over great distances if the senses are developed.

Perception in the mode of rajo-guna is when the world we want to see isn’t manifest to the limited sense of perception. In such a case, we bombard the world with energy, thus converting abstractions into details, and creating a reality that previously did not exist. The observer’s senses then reach out to this created reality, although we know that this isn’t the reality that existed previous to our observation. Quantum particles created through high-energy collisions fall into this category because they are created by inundating matter with energy. This isn’t the reality that existed by itself; it is rather a reality that we are producing by our effort before we observe it.

Perception in the mode of tamo-guna is when we cannot see the world accurately because the world isn’t manifest to our eyes, and we aren’t going to put any effort into “shining light” on it. Rather, we interpret the abstract nature of meaning as uncertainty and indeterminism in nature itself. If we cannot grasp the idea of “Mammal” it appears to us that sometimes a mammal is a “Dog” and sometimes a mammal is a “Cat”. We interpret this variety as indeterminism in “Mammal” itself because we treat “Mammal” as a physical entity that must have a definite state. The idea therefore that nature is uncertain because we cannot explain the emerging variety is knowledge in tamo-guna.

The world is not uncertain, although it is abstract. To see the abstraction our senses must attach to this abstract reality. If we can’t reach out, we can try to illuminate this reality by adding energy into it (through the senses of action). But if we can’t control how we add this energy, then the resulting observation would be random. This randomness is not in nature but in our imperfect methods of perceiving the world.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Can We Know Reality Without Changing It?," in Shabda Journal, February 8, 2017,