Universalism and Personalism in Science

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Introduction and Overview

The laws of nature in current science are mathematical formulae that predict the behavior of objects deterministically, which precludes any role for choice and morality in nature. Therefore, if nature permitted choices, how would we reconceive natural laws? In Vedic philosophy, the law is a material entity called a role which defines the expected behaviors but doesn’t preclude choice. The interaction between choice and expectation creates a consequence, which moves the actor into new roles. There is determinism as far as the outcome of the choice-expectation interaction is concerned but the determinism is based on the local conditions or role without precluding choices. The current contradiction between choice and determinism in science is actually reflective of a mistaken notion of material reality and its laws. This article discusses how natural laws can be reconceived compatible with the existence of choices.

The Cartesian Origins of Anti-Materialism

Descartes gave a specific definition of matter, which has been employed in science ever since. The definition was that matter is res extensa, which means that it is extended in space, and therefore has a spatial location. By implication, all ideas were res cogitans or outside space, and hence they were not constrained to a specific object. The mathematical laws of nature are such ideas; they span more than one object. By definition, they must be non-material.

If something is universal, then it must be non-material because material objects are local. Given that science seeks universal laws, which must apply to all material objects, and we cannot imagine something material that exists in two distinct objects, the natural conclusion must be that mathematical laws which apply to all objects must themselves be non-material.

The origins of anti-materialism exist in Cartesian philosophy which separated the mind from the body. Most materialists today presume that if they reduced the mind to the brain, then we would get rid of this inherent anti-materialism. The fact, however, is that by such reduction they will never be able to reduce ideas because ideas—by definition—span multiple objects. If you reduce an idea to an object, then you lose the ability to see the commonality between objects.

Therefore, if we take materialism to its logical conclusion, then we must also lose the mathematical laws, because the laws (as ideas, formulae, propositions) would be reduced to a specific object, which would entail that they can only be applied to the specific object to which they are reduced. That entails a collapse of science because there would be as many laws as there are objects, which then means that each object is a unique law unto itself, and we cannot subsume the behavior of that under a universal law that spans more than one object.

The Pragmatic Problems of Reduction

Anti-materialism in science exists as mathematical laws that go across all objects. We cannot perceive such a thing by the senses because the senses can only see particular objects, not something that is common between the objects. The human mind is capable of perceiving that commonality and in that sense it perceives what the senses cannot.

The mind can never be reduced to matter precisely due to this problem because if such a reduction were indeed possible it would mean the collapse of mathematical laws and indeed all concepts which span more than one object. The world, upon such reduction, would only be particular objects, without the ability to see the commonalities across objects.

You could no longer use words like table, chair, color, red, sweet, bitter, because they are found in many objects. You could not even use words like energy, momentum, mass, charge, spin, rotation, spin, etc. because they are also general ideas which can be applied to many objects. In fact, come to think of it, you cannot use any word, because they all denote ideas, and ideas must be illusions—reduced to specific objects (e.g. words)—which means that you cannot believe that the word ‘apple’ means a concept “apple”. You can just hear ‘apple’ and say ‘apple’ but there can be no conceptual appellations attached to this sound beyond the sound itself.

The reduction of the mind to matter entails an irrevocable collapse of language as the bearer of meanings. Similarly, it also entails the collapse of science whereby the formulae of science describe multiple (or all) objects. By reduction, mathematical laws would just be blots of ink on paper and while you can sense and write these blots, you cannot call them laws that apply to other objects or representative of something that is common across objects.

Science Depends on Anti-Materialism

Whether or not the mind can be reduced to matter is beside the point. The point is that if a reduction were possible there would be absolutely no meaning and symbolism. For example, you cannot use money to buy goods because money is no longer a symbol of meaning—e.g. value of things. Money is just a piece of paper, and the numerals printed on that paper are just squiggles, and you cannot associate any meaning with the paper—e.g. as a token of exchange.

I would be shy to deny that such a world is possible, but I would be confident to assert that it is indeed the world of animals. Animals don’t read books, they don’t buy goods using money, and certainly animals haven’t pioneered scientific theories and technological innovations. The animals have sensations, by which they eat, fight, mate, and survive. The conceptual faculties, which are so pronounced in the human beings, aren’t as evident in the animals.

Therefore, the reduction of mind to matter entails the reduction of humans to animals whereby the humans must also discard their conceptual, linguistic, and symbolic abilities by which they see commonalities between things which is then used to formulate descriptions using words, and as language develops we can talk about universal laws of nature that span all objects. In so far as animals don’t have pronounced symbolic abilities, the reduction of mind to matter would produce a glaring empirical contradiction—that we have non-animal faculties.

The Problem of Epistemology

The separation of mind from matter was incomplete in Cartesian philosophy because it did not tell us how the two interact. I’m not just talking about how we think, but the general problem of epistemology in which to know the world means to attach ideas to things, or see a particular thing as part of a larger class of things. What makes us say that something is a table or chair, granting that there is a world of ideas (comprising ideas of table and chair) and there is a world of things (comprising objects which could potentially be called tables or chairs)?

The problem manifests in science too where conceptual properties like energy, momentum, mass, charge, etc. have to be measured using an instrument. The mind-body problem in science appears as the choice of a particular instrument used to measure a property. The instrument is physical but it produces a conceptual output—namely the value of a property—by which the object becomes a part of a general class of things, and we then attach ideas to things. The big question is: How do we attach the physical world to a general concept using an instrument? Such instruments are analogues of that hyphen that conjoins the body with the mind.

In science, the mental concept—e.g. heat—is objectified into a measuring instrument and all other objects are then compared to this instrument which now becomes the standard. This process is much like converting the idea of a ‘car’ into a real car, and then calling that real car as the first, the ideal, and the standard bearer for all other cars. Once you identify a standard, you have objectified the idea into a thing, and subsequent measurements will only involve comparisons between objects, by which we can infer that other objects have the same property, and then we can put all these objects into the same class, attached to the idea.

The Choice of Measuring Standards

But, how do we create the first instance of an idea? How do we choose an instrument as the standard for the idea such that all other objects would be described in relation to it?

For example, when a hot object touches our skin we typically feel the sensation of burn but science cannot measure the extent of burn as a measure of heat. Therefore we choose to not measure heat by its burning effects but by its ability to cause an expansion. Liquids expand better than solids, which makes for a convenient process of measurement, and mercury happens to be a liquid metal which then serves as a suitable expanding material used for heat detection.

This gives rise to the thermometer that employs mercury to measure heat. But mercury expansion is only one manifestation of heat, and not the most obvious one at that. Yet, we pick that as the standard for heat, just because we find it very convenient. We must realize that in picking the thermometer as the standard for measuring heat, we are not talking about heat itself (as an idea) but one instance of one of the many effects of heat—i.e. expansion.

But how do we know that the thing that causes the mercury to expand is heat? Clearly, in the case of other substances, expansion could be caused by push and pull forces rather than heat. So, the idea that heat causes mercury to expand involves not just the observation of expansion but also the touching of the hot object to realize that it is actually hot—i.e. it can scald the skin.

The fact is that the thermometer is not experiencing heat; it is undergoing expansion, which is different from the scalding of the skin. And yet, we suppose that the same cause is involved in creating both effects—scalding and expansion—so it really must be the same thing. In other words, through our mind we have already made a connection that has no sensual basis because there is nothing common between scalding and expansion, but we mentally make that connection, which then leads to the idea that the thermometer measures heat.

The Cause and Its Effects

Our assumption here is that there is indeed something called heat—a concept. But this concept has different effects—e.g. expansion and scalding. The concept called ‘heat’ is thus the cause, and it can branch into more than one effect. The fact that we only perceive the effects—i.e. expansion and scalding—and never the concept ‘heat’ itself entails that we are using heat to explain the effect. Such a premise is created mentally because every time there is scalding there is expansion and vice versa, so we can say one of them could be a sufficient condition for the other to occur. But since expansion is not the cause of scalding (and vice versa), both of them are simply effects of a deeper cause—heat—which we can never perceive by the senses.

Geometrically, we can represent this fact as an inverted tree in which ‘heat’ is the ‘root’ and ‘expansion’ and ‘scalding’ are branches emanating from the root. We cannot see the root, but we can see the branches. And yet, we mentally connect the different branches and claim that since scalding and expansion go together, they must emerge from the same root cause. And since they are produced from the same root, therefore, thermometer can be used to measure heat, because it measures at least one of the observables—expansion—which is an indication of heat.

The key point is that science doesn’t measure heat. It rather measures the effects of heat. There are several indicators—or effects—and we pick one of the effects for convenience. We suppose that the cause can potentially have many effects, which are branches emanating from the root, although we can only see the branches by the senses, and the connection between the separate branches—essential to postulate the existence of the root—is made by the mind.

If we discard the mind, there would just be individual effects such as scalding and expansion. There would be no reason to suppose that they are indeed caused by the same reality because the fact is that we never perceive the reality itself although our conceptual and scientific inclinations want to reduce the variety of the world into a parsimonious theory of nature. That theory involves going from the branches to the root, although we cannot perceive the root. If we reduce the mind to the body, there would be no root other than branches and hence no knowledge. We could experience scalding and expansion but we could not say these are due to heat.

The Structure of Science

The world is structured like an inverted tree; this is not something we have recognized thus far, but it is something that is pervasive in all attempts at knowledge that go from contingent and detailed to abstract and imperceptible. As we rise higher in this tree, we get farther and farther from sense perception, but we also obtain a better and better ability to reduce our unique concepts by which we can unify even more diverse phenomena in the same theory.

To see the world as an inverted tree, we must acknowledge that the branches of the tree emanate from the root, which means that heat precedes scalding and expansion, but we can never see heat itself, only its effects. Therefore, there is an imperceptible reality that exists prior to the perceivable phenomena. We can think about this reality and speculate on its nature, but we cannot sensually perceive it. Scientific advancement means the access to such inaccessible realities beyond sense perception. The observable phenomena are effects of the causes, and a scientific theory is that which describes the causes. So long as we can connect the branches to the root in a theory, we can say that the imperceptible reality causes the perception. But nobody can truly claim if that is indeed true, because we are unable to see that reality itself.

Our conviction of the truth of a scientific theory is therefore not based on empirical tests. The conviction is rather based on the breadth of phenomena that the theory can explain. For example, if the postulate of heat can explain scalding, expansion, glowing, cooking, etc. then our concept is far more robust than if it only explained one phenomenon. Ultimately, only a concept that explains all phenomena can be considered irrefutably robust and therefore true. But there is no way we can be sure that our theory indeed explains all the possible phenomena, because of practical limitations in which our senses are limited to a few perceptions. This then gives rise to the need to empirically confirm the reality of the concept. Clearly, since we cannot see the general things by the senses, we need another mode of perception by the mind itself. We have to suppose that the only way we can advance in science is if the ability in the mind to perceive generalities was indeed treated on par—if not better—than sensual perception.

Material vs. Efficient Causes

This approach to perception alleviates the problems entailed by mind-body dualism and its current alternative—materialistic reduction—because we realize that the mind and the body interact through a connection that instantiates an unperceivable cause to perceivable effects. The cause itself can become perceivable through perceptual advancement in which the ability to see generalities (which cut across many objects) is “higher” than sense perception. Such perception corresponds to the ability to see heat through many possible phenomena such as expansion, scalding, glowing, etc. Or, to the ability to see that many objects are cars.

But this approach to perception also leads to a new problem, namely that we have to ask ourselves why, when, and how the unperceivable becomes perceivable. This conversion corresponds to the process of the tree growing from the root to the leaves. Since the root can exist even when the leaves don’t, it is not enough to say that the leaves are produced from the root. We must also identify the cause that converts the root into the leaves.

This obviously requires a separation between two kinds of causes—e.g. the heat which can be called the material cause of scalding, and an efficient cause which causes heat to convert into scalding. The distinction between material and efficient causes becomes necessary when we recognize that perception is produced from the imperceptible reality because we are now talking about two distinct things—(a) something that exists materially prior to perception, and (b) something that converts that materially existent thing into a perceptible thing.

We could say that the mind is the material cause and scalding is a material effect, but the connection between them is the efficient cause. Reduction forgoes the conceptual nature of the cause, and thereby confuses the cause with the effect, not realizing that the same cause can have many effects, as that cause is brought into interaction with other causes. Dualism recognizes the conceptual nature of the cause but is unable to make the connection between cause and effect and therefore suffers from the mind-body interaction problem. The additional cause—the efficient cause—addresses the problem of dualism and tells us that it is not enough to have heat in order to produce scalding. Rather, we must put the heat in contact with my hand to produce the effect of scalding. If the same heat is put in contact with mercury the effect is expansion.

The efficient cause therefore answers the question of which object is put in contact with heat, and this involves a choice. Even though the material reality—e.g. heat—exists conceptually, its conversion into a phenomena such as scalding or expansion is not predetermined without this choice. Scalding is produced when the conceptual reality called heat is brought into interaction with another conceptual reality called my skin. The efficient cause is that which brings my skin in contact with the heat, and thereby produces the observable effect of scalding.

Particles and Fields in Modern Science

In modern science, the distinction between material and efficient causes exists partially as particles and fields—the particles are the material cause while the fields are the efficient cause. The difference is primarily that in classical physics we also supposed that the efficient cause involves no choice. Thus, whether a given reality—heat—will cause the mercury to expand or the skin to scald is predetermined. This assumption has now failed in atomic theory where we cannot predict which phenomena will be caused by the given reality and when.

Physicists are baffled by atomic theory because they continue to think in terms of the material cause alone and don’t recognize the existence of the efficient cause owing to the legacy of classical physics. They are unable to realize that the ‘field’ that puts two objects into interaction with each other is no longer the classical field which simultaneously causes all objects to interact with each other. In other words, according to classical physics, if heat exists then it must affect the mercury and my skin simultaneously because the field exists everywhere. Atomic theory forbids this idea because the field is now ‘quantized’ which means that it can exist everywhere but in fact it only exists in one place. Hence, the possibility to exist everywhere is called the ‘field’ while the fact that it exists in only one place is called the ‘particle’. How that possibility of existing everywhere is converted into the fact of existing in one place is unknown.

The short answer to this quandary is that the field doesn’t exist everywhere; it is rather the efficient cause that makes two conceptual objects interact to create a phenomena. Therefore, the existence of heat will not automatically cause the mercury to expand unless the heat is ‘emitted’ from the source to the destination, and this emission can’t be predicted in current physics because we have never incorporated an understanding of efficient causes, which are responsible for putting together two objects into interaction. In other words, not every object interacts with every other object in the universe. Rather, some objects will interact with other objects, which will then be able to ‘perceive’ the presence of each other. The ‘field’ is nothing but that physical entity which makes one object feel the presence of the other object specifically.

Theorizing the Nature of the Efficient Cause

This is the point at which Vedic philosophy becomes relevant. In this philosophy, reality has three aspects called sat, chit, and ananda. The chit is the conceptual reality, which produces the hierarchical tree-like structure from abstract to detailed; in other words, our minds and bodies are due to chit. We have also called this reality the material cause because it exists as objects; some of these objects are conceptual and imperceptible while other objects are perceivable.

The material cause is incomplete and cannot produce experience unless complemented by two other causes—corresponding to ananda and sat—which we can call desiring and deserving. These are also called guna and karma, and I have collectively called them the efficient cause.

In simple terms, two conceptual objects (material cause) are brought in contact with each other due to a combination of desiring and deserving; for the senses of knowledge, the deserving is more important and we can desire from the available options that we deserve, but for the senses of action, the desiring is more important and they decide which of the deserving will be employed. Setting aside the details and nuances of this process, the key point is that the material cause is by itself inadequate unless combined with the efficient causes (two of them).

The sat creates relationality—it puts us in relation to the world. We commonly call this relation ‘consciousness’ by which our experience is directed towards an object. But sat is not just a transcendental concept; it also has a material counterpart by which an object can potentially interact with other objects. The ananda is the cause of choice—it allows us to pick from the available options in the world through which the potential becomes perceivable.

Sometimes, the options are so limited by our circumstances that our desires can only choose from the available options. At other times, the desires are stronger and they can change our circumstances. Therefore, sometimes sat dominates chit and ananda, and at other times ananda dominates sat and chit, while at other times chit dominates sat and ananda. At all times, sat, chit, and ananda must be combined to create an experience, which means that there is always some material reality, there is always a desire, and there is always some deserving. If these three are separated, there is no experience; experience is produced by their mixing.

The Role of Consciousness in Science

The terms sat, chit, and ananda are three aspects of the soul. In the material world, the same three aspects are reflected in matter. We can describe matter based on the nature of the soul, incorporating the understanding of sat, chit, and ananda in science, contrary to the present attempts of trying to divorce matter from the nature of the soul. Such a study is not in the least ‘unscientific’; in fact it would be called upon only to solve those problems that current materialism cannot solve. And it involves no ‘transcendent’ factors per se.

The distinction between efficient and material causes needs an observer-centric view of the world in which a ‘field’ is not universally pervasive because this ‘field’ is quantized. The quantization of the field means that there are specific relationships between objects which this field instantiates. The world is not an illusion that simply manifests out of the field and disappears into it. Rather, the world is real material objects that exist imperceptibly as concepts. When these objects are put into contact with each other by the field, they are seen.

There are hence two distinct approaches to employing consciousness into science. The impersonalist approach claims that because observations are popping out of possibility and disappearing into that possibility we can suppose that the possibility is the ultimate ground of experience, and the observations popping out of the possibility are ultimately illusions. We can identify the possibility with ‘consciousness’ and the popped out illusion ‘matter’. Ultimately we conclude that consciousness is reality and the material phenomena are illusions.

The personalist approach rejects this interpretation and claims that the world is not an illusion and it really exists. But what we see is not just because that thing exists but also because we are put into contact with that thing. Each observer comes into contact with different things and science is the ability to predict which things the observer will contact based on what they deserve and desire; the missing ingredient in atomic theory is how to explain who contacts what.

Personalism vs. Impersonalism

The two approaches are as different as chalk and cheese. In the impersonalist approach the observers are ultimately an illusion created from the universal possibility; they pop out and they pop back in from that possibility, and they mistakenly imagine that their individuality is real. The temporariness of the atomic phenomena is therefore indicative of the temporariness of our individuality because we must identify our individuality with the material body.

In the personalist approach the observers are eternal but the interactions between these observers and the material objects are temporary; everything therefore exists at all times, but everything is not perceivable at all times. The temporariness of the material experience has to be explained by an additional efficient cause which is a material reflection of the sat and ananda of the soul.

When the personalist approach is adopted, both the individuality of material objects and the individuality of the soul are reinstated. This allows us to both do science (because there are individual objects) and practice religion (because the soul is eternally individual). In the material experience, the desiring and deserving are incompatible due to which the desires are often frustrated and we are forced to experience what we don’t desire. But in religion the desiring and deserving become compatible which we means we only experience what we desire and what we desire is always available. The principles of sat, chit, and ananda don’t disappear in either case; the difference is that these are conflicting in matter and consistent in transcendence.

The study of matter is thus non-different from the study of the soul, because the material dynamics are described as the conflict between the material counterparts of sat, chit, and ananda. The analysis of this conflict leads us to the need for consistency in which what we desire, what we deserve, and what we perceive in reality are not conflictual but consistent.

The Expansion of Material Ontology

Current material science only speaks about material reality but the personalist approach adds two more categories—desiring and deserving. The material experience is therefore not caused by a material reality alone; it is rather created from the conflict between desiring, deserving, and reality. In that respect we have to expand our ontology from one thing to three things. The material reality exists independent of my desiring or deserving, which means matter is objectively real. But the material reality doesn’t produce an experience unless it is combined with the desiring and deserving, which means that the observer is not permanently bound to matter. The material experience is therefore the outcome of combining three things, and the process of this combination is the essence of the complete scientific explanation of the world.

Conversely, in the impersonalist approach there is one thing—possibility—so how it becomes an experience can never be explained except by supposing that this conversion occurs randomly. This has, historically speaking, been the central burden of oneness because they cannot explain the origin of experience, even if we grant the illusion of the material experience.

Since experience is produced from the mixing of reality, desiring, and deserving, there is an additional need to explain the cause of this mixing in order to create experience. Since there is a time when they are mixed and a time when they are unmixed, time becomes the cause of mixing or unmixing, which are then the origin and the end of the universe. The personalist ontology is broader than the impersonalist ontology, but that is because it recognizes the reality of both individual observer and individual object, besides the reality of both material and transcendent experiences. The impersonalist rejects the individuality of both the observer and the objects, besides rejecting the reality of both material and transcendent experience.

Of course, when we present the problem in this way, it appears that the questions of reality are ultimately metaphysical and there is no way to decide if one is better than the other. However, science can play an important role here because it presents a problem of explaining and predicting and there are two kinds of answers to this problem: (1) there can be no better prediction and explanation because this is indeed the reality, and (2) there can be a better explanation and prediction if we expand our ontology. In that sense, the impersonalist approach can be considered incomplete although it is never inconsistent. The personalist approach instead presents an alternative that is both complete and consistent. The criterion of selection is therefore not simply a metaphysical preference, but an objective and rational choice.

The Universal and Local Laws

When the ‘field’ puts everything in contact with everything else, the laws of nature are universal. However, when the ‘field’ puts a specific set of objects in contact, then the laws of nature are contextual to that relation. In simple terms, the laws are contingent on the specific role that an object plays in relation to another object, and the law of nature is normative. That is, the role prescribes the expected behavior, and the consequences of the action are decided by whether the action conforms to the expectation. In other words, when we go from universalization to contextualization, we change the determinants in the law from universal to contextual.

The material world is objective and universal; it exists as the tree-like hierarchy of gross phenomena produced from subtle reality, when the efficient cause acts upon the subtle. However, the efficient cause (guna and karma) is contextual and not universal. This basically means that you can study the material objects in a third-person universalist way, but why you see a particular object (and not other objects) can only be explained in the first-person way. The material cause is the universalism and the efficient cause is the personalism.

Time acts differently on the material and the efficient causes. On the material cause, time acts to create the material objects regardless of the individual observers. On the efficient cause, time acts to manifest the desiring and deserving which combine with the reality to experience it. Thus, the objective evolution of the material world is independent of all observers. But the subjective experience of this world by individual observers depends on the respective observers.

We can thus speak about two kinds of laws—universal and contextual. The universal law is the objective evolution of the material world. The contextual law is that each situation has different expectations and the same action has different consequences in different roles. This contextuality is the personalization of science from the prior impersonalism. The personalist ideology entails not just a philosophical preference in viewpoint. It also entails a new type of law in nature, and by proving the truth of such laws we can conclude the truth of personalism.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Universalism and Personalism in Science," in Shabda Journal, August 1, 2017, https://journal.shabda.co/2017/08/01/universalism-personalism-science/.