The Cyclic Model of Causality

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The How and Why of Causality

In modern science, causes are equated to forces. These forces represent how change occurs; it involves explaining the creation of a trajectory. However, forces don’t explain why change occurs, which involves the goal or destination along with a moral justification of the goal.

For example, if someone asks you, “How did you come here?” you can respond by saying that “I took a bus”. But if someone asks, “Why did you come here?” you might say “I wanted to see you”. If you are pushed even further, you might provide a justification: “It was very important and necessary to meet you”. This article discusses how the different aspects of causality produce a self-perpetuating cycle of change, which comes to an end if the justification is removed.

An Intuitive Example

Suppose a man shoots a gun by pressing a trigger. In this action, many distinct ideas are involved. First, there is a gun, which we can call matter. However, this matter exists in an inert state, because the gun doesn’t shoot automatically. We can say that the gun is the possibility of being shot, or the ability to shoot. Something additional is needed to fire the gun.

To fire the gun, we must press the trigger, which involves our senses of action. However, these senses are also in a state of possibility. We can say that I have the ability to shoot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I will shoot. Our body is pretty much in the same position as the gun regarding causality—i.e. it exists as a possibility which must be converted into a reality.

In the human body, the finger is moved by neural impulses from the brain (or the spinal cord). It is called prana in Vedic philosophy, but we will come to that issue a little later.

The neural impulses also are triggered by the thinking, feeling, and willing in the mind, which occurs prior to neural impulse. For example, we might think “the person before me is an enemy”, followed by the generation of anger “I must punish him”, followed by the decision “I will shoot this person”. Thereafter, the neural impulse carries the instruction to press the trigger.

Even prior to the conscious thinking, feeling, and willing, there is something unconscious, which constitutes our personality. Not everyone decides to shoot an enemy, so the unconscious plays an important role in the decision to shoot. In between the conscious and the unconscious is a semi-conscious realm of morality which can control the unconscious becoming the conscious.

Therefore, the pressing of the finger is prior to the firing of the gun, the neural impulse is prior to the pressing of the finger, the thought process is prior to the neural impulse, the moral influence is prior to the thought process, and the unconscious is even deeper than morality.

The Explanation in Modern Science

In modern science, all these processes—the trigger pull releasing the bullet, the finger pressing the trigger, the neural impulse causing the finger press, the mental state prior to the neural impulse, the morality which influences the thought, and the unconscious personality which generates the original tendencies that the morality controls—are believed to be the same type of dynamics in ‘matter’. For example, a materialist would claim that the brain (the unconscious personality, the semi-conscious morality, and the conscious thought) pushes the hand, the hand pushes the gun, and the gun pushes the bullet. But what pushes the brain to push everything else?

Aside from the problem of what pushes the brain, there are other issues in equating the brain to the mind. For example, the mind has three different things that don’t exist in other parts of the body—(a) directedness to the world, (b) the understanding of the world in terms of concepts, and (c) a purpose or goal. We cannot say that a hand is about the world, just as our thoughts are about the world. We cannot say that a hand understands the world in terms of concepts, quite like the mind does. And we cannot say that a hand has a goal or purpose that it wants to achieve, in the same way that the mind has goal and purpose. Therefore, the explanation of the hand pushing the trigger doesn’t extend well to the mind, even if we could solve the ‘original push’ problem.

If instead we say that the mind is different from the brain and the rest of the body, then we are led to the mind-body interaction problem. We are therefore caught between the two horns of a dilemma: (a) if we say that the mind is pushed just like the hand pushes the trigger then we lose the understanding of the mind in terms of thoughts, feelings, and purposes, and (b) if instead we say that the mind is different from the hand, then we have to solve the mind-body problem.

The Explanation in Vedic Philosophy

Vedic philosophy states that the mind is different from the body. The finger that pushes the trigger can be modeled as a mechanical force, however, the force that pushes the finger based on a mental process cannot be treated mechanically. A mechanical force must have objects without purpose at both ends of the causal connection, but to explain the finger motion we must have a mental purpose at one end and the finger at the other. The ‘force’ that connects the mental purpose to the finger motion is called prana and it connects the mind with the body.

In other words, causality is not between two things of the same type (e.g. billiard balls which push each other) but two things of dissimilar type (e.g. mind and body). The prana which pushes the finger is a non-mechanical force, which can be called the cause of the finger movement. Underlying this cause is a reason or purpose in the mind. Underlying that reason is a moral justification by which the action is judged right or wrong. And even behind that justification is a conscious choice which selects the moral value being employed to justifying the action.

The conscious choice originates in the soul, and it is used to prioritize one moral value over another. This value rationalizes the purpose—i.e. I have a goal because it is righteous. The purpose then becomes the reason for the movement of prana and the movement of the prana then causes the movement of the finger. Thus, we explain the finger’s motion by a non-mechanical cause, a reason or purpose in the mind, a moral justification, and a conscious choice. Each successive explanation is deeper and subtler, but they are of different kinds.

Past, Present, and Future

In modern science, we can look at the present state of the object—e.g. that it is at position x and moving with momentum p—and determine the future state. However, we can also look at the future state of the object—i.e. the goal or destination—and claim that since the goal hasn’t been achieved, activity must steer it toward the goal. When we speak about ‘force’ in science, we mean something that acts now to decide the future. However, when we speak about prana in Vedic philosophy we mean something that acts now to steer toward a goal. In the former case, the future is decided by the present, and in the latter case the present is decided by the future.

If the future decides the present, then how is the future decided? The short answer is the past—our goals are determined by unconscious memories that have been acquired in the past. This past constitutes our personality comprising of habits or likes and dislikes, unconscious preferences. As we experience the present, the past is automatically invoked, and results in a deep-seated feeling. This feeling is then tempered by our morality—i.e. the judgment about whether the feeling is appropriate here and now—in some sense the consideration of the present. This judgment then rationalizes the goal which lies in the future, which then changes the present.

This is a complex model of causality in which the present triggers the past, the past is judged by the present to form a future, and the future then changes the present. Thus, the present goes into the past, the past into the future (through the present) and the future alters the present. Notably, if we became free of the past, then the present won’t trigger it, there would be no reason to judge its validity and form a goal, which will then cease to modify the present incessantly. The freedom from the unconscious past thus relieves the soul from the cycle of causality.

Deterministic and Non-Deterministic Causalities

When causality goes from the present to the future, the result is determinism. However, when the present triggers a past, which then decides the future, which then changes the present, the causal model becomes non-deterministic. There are two main reasons for this indeterminism. First, if we had a different past, the present itself would be insufficient to decide the future. Second, even if we had the same past, but we had a choice (influenced by morality) changing the goals, the results will be indeterministic. Thus, there are two ways in which we can change the future. First, we can change the personality acquired in the past; this is a slow but lasting change. Second, until this lasting change has occurred, we can change the present by a choice; if the past hasn’t changed, our choices are forced by the past, which means this can be fleeting change.

We must also broaden causality from forces to reasons, justifications, and choices. Our goals are justified by the moral values. Our moral principles become effective when we have some inner drive. And the inner drive is created by the interaction with the world. The interaction with the world sets the cycle into motion, and cessation of all worldly activities could seem to temporarily end the cycle, because whenever we encounter the world, the latent personality will produce new goals which will then resume the endless cycle of causal changes.

Ultimately, the reformation of the unconscious personality is the only permanent solution. When we control our unconscious impulses by morality, we feel the pride of our achievement—I have been able to conquer my unconscious instincts by my mental control. Similarly, if we stop the interaction with the world, we feel the pride arising out of the bodily control. However, when the unconscious is reformed, the pride disappears because our behavior is who we are.

In subtle ways, therefore, our pride is a symptom of a difference between the conscious and the unconscious. There is a temporary sense of achievement due to controlling the body and the unconscious, and while it leads to happiness, that happiness is also prideful. When we fail to control the unconscious and the body, the pride is hurt, and happiness turns into frustration. We might note therefore that unless the unconscious is reformed the solutions are temporary.

Revisions to Empiricism

Our unconscious personality, the semi-conscious moral principles, and the goals, all exist in the present, but they are not observable by the senses. Therefore, science cannot be done within the ambit of sense perception alone, because by the sense perception we only measure the external worldly triggers, but not the inner mechanism that creates the goals. Since the mind can perceive the inner mechanism, therefore, causality is complete only by including mental perception.

In Western philosophy, it has been believed that the connection from the present to the future must be made in the external world. For example, when the moon orbits the earth, its motion will create a force which will then cause the tides on earth. The problem is that we can observe the tides and the moon’s motion, but we can never observe the force that connects the moon’s motion to the tides. This supposed connection remains a permanent speculation.

In Vedic philosophy, the connection from the present to the future must be made in the internal world comprising of the unconscious, semi-conscious, and the conscious, which are all different kinds of experiences although different from sense perception. Unlike the connection made in the external world which can never be confirmed, the connection made in the internal world can be confirmed by direct experience, although that experience is not sense perception.

Therefore, to do actual science, we must still explain how the moon is pulling the tides on earth—but the explanation is not the mechanical force that the moon exerts on the oceans (which is supposed to lie in the external world). Rather, the explanation must say that the present situation triggers a past, which is tempered by a moral duty, which then produces a goal; this goal interacts with the ocean and cause the tide. In case of the external explanation we can predict the future because the laws of nature are correct. In the case of the internal explanation we can predict the future because the goals for the future are produced in advance.

Conscious and Unconscious Causality

The soul is said to be covered by three kinds of bodies in Vedic philosophy: the gross body, which we can observe by the senses, a subtle body which forms the moralized goals, and a causal body which comprises of the memory of desires, fears, likes, and dislikes, which we call our personality. During our waking experience, all the three bodies are active. During the dreaming experience, only the subtle and causal bodies are active. And during deep sleep, only the causal body is active. Of these three, the causal body is the most important; it constitutes the past.

The past exists in the present, but as habits of thinking and behavior. For instance, if you form the habit of waking up at a certain time, you will automatically come out of the sleeping state at that time. No conscious intervention is required, which means that thinking, feeling, willing, and judging are not active. Similarly, as we form new habits, we are automatically reminded consciously of them when the time and place arrive. Therefore, the ordinary notion that everything is controlled by ‘conscious’ thinking, feeling, willing, judging, etc. is false. We are rather controlled by a deeper unconscious repository of habits; we are creatures of habit.

The causal cycle involves these three kinds of bodies. The gross body or the present sense perceptual waking experience triggers the subtle body, which then triggers the causal body, potentially invoking many kinds of pasts. The soul intervenes and selects one of the many types of pasts. This selection now flows downward from the causal to the subtle to the gross bodies. By cyclic causality we simply mean that the impressions of the gross body go deeper into subtle and causal body and then come back from the causal to the subtle to the gross body.

Broadening the Causal Model

Since the past exists in the present as personality and the future exists in the present as goals, everything is in the present, although not of the same type. Right now, we are ignoring the existence of the subtle and causal bodies, and the soul which exists beyond these bodies. We remain confined to the gross body measured by sense perception, leading to determinism. Under this determinism, we say that there are forces, but no reasons, justifications, and choices.

Nature in modern science therefore exists without a purpose, and that purpose itself cannot be rationalized as the desire of a person, nor can it be morally judged as being right or wrong.

By changing the causal model, we make many improvements: (1) there is an explicit role for choice, (2) the causality is internal rather than external, (3) the causality is expanded from forces to reasons and justifications. This model is also empirical because memory and goals are mentally perceived by everyone. It is just not sense perception empirical.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Cyclic Model of Causality," in Shabda Journal, February 3, 2019,