Why Theism Needs Alternative Causation

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The Religious Problem of Causation

Imagine that a moving billiard ball collides with a static one, and transfers its energy, which causes the static billiard ball to start moving. The cause of the change is energy, and due to conservation, once energy is transferred to the new ball, the cause ceases to exist, and the effect becomes the new cause.

Now extend this idea to causation by God. God created the universe, and therefore He was all the energy in the beginning. But since energy gets transferred, therefore, God must cease to exist. Or even if He exists, He is like that static ball that has lost its energy because it was converted into the world.

This article discusses how this idea about causation is modified in theistic versions of Vedic philosophy.

The Abrahamic Religious Doctrine

To say that God exists fully even after the creation of the world, the Abrahamic religions adopt the ex nihilo idea of creation—God created the world from nothing. In short, He created the energy from which the world was produced. But how did God create energy from nothing? Isn’t that a case of something coming out of nothing? Well, God is supernatural, so we don’t apply naturalistic principles, and conservation of energy is a naturalistic principle. In short, God’s creation is not subject to the conservation of energy, because if this principle were applied, it would entail that the energy was in God, and since it became the world, therefore God was diminished after creation.

The pantheistic religions sometimes go a step further. They say that the conservation of energy is true, and God was the sum of this energy before creation. When the world is created, then God simply becomes the world. Therefore, He ceases to have a separate existence, and the world again becomes God when everything is destroyed. In other words, there is either God or the world, and these are merely two different states of energy—concentrated in God or distributed in the world. Supernatural ideas are not needed, because conservation of energy is upheld. And yet, right now, because the world is manifest, therefore, God doesn’t exist. Your worship of God is therefore false right now.

You can see why energy conservation plays havoc with religion—if this principle is upheld, then God either ceases to exist or is diminished upon creation. If we reject this idea, then we must appeal to supernaturalism, and at the point of creation of the world, the doctrine becomes unscientific.

The Sāñkhya Philosophy Doctrine

In philosophy, examples are very important. Fire was very important to Vedic culture, so the cardinal example of causation wasn’t the collision of billiard balls. It was wood being ignited into fire. You can create fire by rubbing two pieces of wood. Then, when the fire is produced by rubbing, you ask: did the fire exist inside the wood before we saw it? Or was fire being transferred from somewhere else? We can see that the fire existed in the wood as latent energy. But if it was latent, then why did we not see it earlier? Well, there are different states of energy—fire is manifest, and latent fire was unmanifest.

But the key problem is still there—the wood is burnt and ceases to exist when it is ignited. So, we must say that wood transformed into fire; wood doesn’t exist when fire does. If this idea is extended to God, then we come to the same conclusion—when the world is manifest, then God ceases to exist. Or, at the least, much like wood is reduced to ashes, similarly, God must be reduced to ashes upon creation.

To solve this problem, a distinction between puruṣa and prakriti is drawn. The piece of wood is prakriti. It can have many states—unmanifest and manifest fire—and the change is caused by the puruṣa. Since prakriti is eternal, therefore, energy is eternally conserved. Since puruṣa is different from prakriti, therefore, the puruṣa is not diminished when the world is created: the world is only transforming the state of energy. This change in the state of prakriti is caused due to the free will in puruṣa.

However, this claim leads to a new problem—if the puruṣa is will, and the prakriti is matter, then how can will control matter? Doesn’t this control violate the laws of nature? Or, should we say that there are no laws, and there is only will? But if that will is always lawful, then is it really free?

We now have two undesirable outcomes—either will doesn’t control matter, and therefore, puruṣa has no control over prakriti. Or, will always controls matter, but because the control is lawful, therefore it is not free. If we reject the idea that the puruṣa has no control over matter, then there is no way to know the existence of puruṣa (after all, if something exists, then it must also have an effect). So, the only possible conclusion is that the puruṣa is not free will, but only the laws of nature. By this conclusion, the laws of nature are shifted from prakriti to puruṣa, but the result is the rejection of free will.

The solution to this problem divides causality into three parts—the lawfulness of matter, of soul, and of time. If you push a button, the fan will start rotating. This is the law of prakriti. But there is an if—i.e. someone must make a choice. The soul makes this choice, and every choice brings a consequence, which is called the law of karma. But how do we decide karma? If I do something wrong today, and it produces a chain of bad effects till eternity, then I’m responsible for all the bad actions till eternity. The consequences of my bad action right now will continue to punish me forever. The solution to that problem is time—time is cosmic destiny and decides what will happen, but not who will do it. So, someone is going to push the button anyway, and therefore if I push the button, then, I’m only responsible for this one action, not the subsequent ones, because they were already destined. This solution expands the Sāñkhya ontology from puruṣa and prakriti and adds karma and time to it.

A new problem now arises. Who is puruṣa? Is it God? If so, how can He be bound by the laws of nature, the consequences of actions, and the suffering resulting from these actions? The answer to this problem is the puruṣa is the soul, not God. This leads to two problems: (1) where is God—does He not exist? and (2) the soul is caught in the cycle of birth-and-death—does he come out of this cycle?

The solution to these two problems is then tied together. God is the person who facilitates the soul’s liberation from the cycle of birth and death. God’s role is not controlling matter—that is the job of destiny defined by time. God’s role is not to make individual choices—that’s the soul’s own problem. God doesn’t define the laws of matter—that is the problem of understanding prakriti. God has only one role—to help the soul get liberated from the clutches of the cycle of birth and death. With this solution, the Sāñkhya ontology is expanded to five things—puruṣa, prakriti, time, karma, and God.

The Vedānta Philosophy Doctrine

This is where Sāñkhya ends, but it hardly ends the problem. The new question is—what is liberation? How does God help the soul to become liberated? And why should the soul be caught in the cycle of birth and death? The Vedānta doctrine gets into the relation between the soul and God. It is stated that the soul is part of God, and as a part, the soul must serve God. The soul is caught in the cycle of birth and death when the soul stops serving God and starts serving himself. But there is a problem. If the soul is the part of God, then how can the part know the whole? The whole is infinite, and the part is finite. How can the knowledge of the infinite fit inside the finite? If God cannot be known, then how can the soul serve God? And if he cannot serve God, then how can there be liberation for the soul?

Apart from the fitting the infinite into the finite, there are other problems. Since the soul and God are different, and every type of illusion follows from the difference between the knower and the known—only self-knowledge is completely certain—then how can we be sure that we are not hallucinating about God? How can we be sure that what we call the experience of God is not merely our construction?

Now, the Vedānta doctrine is updated—the God we see is within us. The soul exists, but it is not a physical object. It is rather like a symbol—which has both existence and meaning. God is the meaning of that symbol. This meaning is within the soul, and therefore, the preliminary stage of self-realization is the existence of the soul. But a deeper level realization is that this existence also has a meaning.

But this leads to a new problem—everyone can say that they have found the meaning of their existence within themselves. Since the meaning is within us, how can we say that everyone doesn’t have a different meaning? Due to this problem, the doctrine is enhanced again—the meaning within is also referential. It points to something outside us. Just like when you say the “sky is blue”, there is a sentence, it has a meaning, and the meaning is about the sky. How do we know it is about the sky? We can know only if within this meaning there is another deeper reality that constitutes the reference. For example, when you see an apple, there is an external apple, and an image of that apple within you. Now, you can see the image and say that it is my hallucination. Unless, of course, there is a deeper level reality within that image which says—this image came from an external apple. That’s when we know that my image is about the real external world. But we never see that real world itself. We only see the image, and something deeper within that image, which then points us toward the external world.

This understanding of Vedānta is presented as the three levels of understanding reality—Brahman, Paramātma, and Bhagavan. The soul is Brahman; the meaning of its existence is Paramātma, which exists inside the soul. But this meaning is referential, and it therefore points toward Bhagavan, outside the soul. So, you don’t reach an external reality by going outward. You reach it by going deeper inward. Since you can be certain of your existence, by going deeper within, you only extend that certainty. In short, the certainty of God’s existence is obtained by seeing what lies within us, not by seeing what is outside. This doesn’t mean that God is inside us; it means that we are referencing God within us.

This solves the problem of liberation—we don’t know our true nature, and how it is connected to God. The true nature is known when we see God within. But the God within exists as a meaning, not the object referenced by that meaning. The meaning is succinct, even if the object referenced outside is infinite. Furthermore, since the meaning is within us, and points externally, therefore, we don’t need to look outside to know God, and hence the problems of epistemology don’t arise. This knowledge is as certain as the certainty of the self-existence. This completes both Sāñkhya and Vedānta because the problem of liberation in Sāñkhya is explained by the soul-God relation in the Vedānta doctrine.

The Problem of Understanding Vedānta

But this raises a whole slew of new problems. The soul is described as a symbol which can represent an external reality within itself. So, even though the symbol may be knowledge (rather than illusion), it may not be complete. After all, saying that ‘the sky is blue’ is not a complete description of the sky.

This is where Vedānta is further advanced to say that the picture within is always a partial picture, and yet, this picture is part of God. Just like a person is simultaneously a father, an employee, and a citizen, but only the children see him as a father, only the boss sees him as an employee, and only the government sees him as a citizen, similarly, you see the same reality from different perspectives, and get partial views. God (as the person outside) is all those things, but we cannot see that whole truth. We only see what is uniquely defined by a relation and perspective; the soul thus has a relation to God. The doctrine of this relation is then developed into a full-fledged understanding of devotion to God. Once this relation is developed, the purpose of one’s existence is revealed, and the soul is liberated. However, because God is known through a relationship, He may not be known completely. The object of knowledge is same for everyone—i.e. God—and yet, everyone has a different (partial) view of God.

Even if we see God differently, we don’t say that there are many Gods. We are factually talking about a single God—or we succumb to polytheism—because the reference of knowledge is one. This is like saying that “John is a father”, “John is an employee”, “John is a citizen”, etc. The attributes of ‘father’, ‘employee’ and ‘citizen’ are different descriptions of John. And yet, they are all about John. If John is the Absolute Truth, then everyone knows the Absolute Truth. But everyone knows this truth differently. That is not the same as someone knowing John, another one knowing Peter, Mark, etc. We don’t say that there are many ‘Gods’, and we don’t say that ‘God’ is always perceived in the same way. Thus, two contradictory ideas—diverse perceptions and a universal reality—are resolved simultaneously.

But this leads to a new problem. If there are so many perspectives, then how does God perceive Himself? Obviously, if He perceived Himself like the other souls, then, He would just be that soul. To be a different person, He must also have a unique perspective, not shared by anyone else. And this perspective must be the complete picture of Who He is. This leads to the conclusion that God’s self-image is the original image, and from that image, many partial images are created. But this leads to the idea that the soul and its perspective must be a ‘creation’ of God’s self-image. Just like how others view us is always a partial picture of how we see ourselves, similarly, the soul is a part of God.

Therefore, we must distinguish between the person, the image, and the knower. The knower knows the person, but through an image. The knower has a unique relation to the person. Unless we make these distinctions, it seems that the soul is part of God, and God is part of soul, which leads to inconceivability. But if we make this distinction, then the image of God inside the soul is not the person outside. Although the image and the person are semantically identically, they are separate individuals. The fuller solution to the problem of perception leads to tripartite nature of reality—the person is called ananda, their image of the person is called chit, and the relation to the knower is called sat. The interaction between the soul and God casts a picture of God inside the soul, but the picture and object are distinct.

The situation is like two mirrors reflecting each other—there is a picture of each mirror inside the other. The further complication is that the second mirror is a part of the first mirror. You can never draw a physical picture of this reflection—the whole being mirrored within its own part. And this impossibility of physically visualizing this idea leads one to conclude that the Vedānta doctrine is inconceivable. One aspect of this inconceivability is that we don’t distinguish between the object, the picture, and the seer. Specifically, the picture pertains to the seer, and but it also pertains to the object. Even if the seer and the seen are distinct, the picture is tied to both; and this violates conventional logic.

The Problem of Understanding Sāñkhya

The problem of Sāñkhya worsens due to this conclusion in Vedānta. Recall that the soul was previously recognized as one of the five realities in Sāñkhya. But now Vedānta has concluded that the soul is part of God. If that was the fate of the soul, then what about the other three? Isn’t it more consistent to extend this idea and say that the other three realities must also be part of God? Doesn’t it follow that the inclusion of the soul as part of God entails that time, prakriti, and karma are also part of God?

The solution is not as easy as it might sound. If we say that these three realities are part of God, then just like God is both within and outside the soul, likewise, we must say that God is also within and outside these three realities. Thus, for instance, we would say that there is an image of the soul, God, karma, and time, within prakriti, and this image is then the cause of the prakritis actions. That would be radical, because now prakriti is reflecting other things, so prakriti is also a conscious person! Now, you cannot say that matter is ‘dead’ or ‘inert’. You must say that it is also an individual person. Likewise, time must also be a person. In fact, the soul, matter, and God are both within time, and outside time. So, we can no longer treat matter and time as physical entities; we must treat them as personalities.

So, what began as the idea of prakriti and time in Sāñkhya, which solved the problem of causality associated with free will, now turns out to be personalities, just like the soul and God. In fact, because prakriti and time are also souls, they are also spiritual. Thus, we can identify four kinds of spiritual entities—God, soul, prakriti, and time. The last three being the parts of the first.

Then, what is matter? Matter is that which is not part of God, because it is not eternal. Karma is the only material reality. Karma can enter the soul, matter, and time, but matter, time, and the soul don’t enter karma. In short, karma is not a person or observer; although karma can be observed. Every observer is eternal, and the non-observer (karma) is material and temporary. Since karma can be created and destroyed, as matter, it is certainly not ‘conserved’. And yet, karma is also not created by God.

So, the creation of the universe is not ex nihilo—because the cause is prakriti. The creation of the universe is not by God—it is due to karma (a related problem is that of theodicy or evil: if God created the universe, and the universe has evil, then God must be evil; the answer is: God is not evil, and He did not create the universe; the universe was created due to karma, which was created by the soul). And God is not decimated by this creation, because God, soul, prakriti and time are eternal. Only karma is temporary, and it is created, and it is not a part of God. Something that is not part of God cannot decimate God. Thus, we reject all the aforementioned doctrines—(1) energy is conserved, (2) God is the creator, and (3) God is reduced by this creation because a part of Him becomes the universe.

The Problem of the Soul’s Fall into Matter

A new problem now arises. The soul must fall into the world to create karma, but material existence is only due to karma. So, the soul cannot fall unless there is karma, and karma cannot exist unless there is a fall. The solution to this chicken-and-egg problem is that the soul falls due to its desire. There is hence original causation of desire, after which the subsequent causation is primarily due to karma.

When the material universe is destroyed, all karma is destroyed. The soul enters back into God’s body, and God being eternal everything part of God is also eternal. Hence, karma doesn’t exist in God’s body. However, the desire in the soul remains, because it is not karma. Due to this desire, the soul falls into matter again and again. Unless, of course, the desire is corrected. This reinforces the idea that karma is material and temporary, and it only exists as long as the phenomenal universe exists. It is not reality, because it doesn’t exist as part of God, and it is not a person, because it is not eternal. Simply because karma is not eternal, we can say that this material world is an illusion. Even though prakriti, puruṣa, God and time are real, the unreality of the fifth component—karma—makes the universe unreal.  

The essence of material desire is envy—it results in competition. The essence of spiritual desire is love—it results in cooperation. The essence of prakriti is that it facilitates competition, and the essence of the spiritual world is that it facilitates cooperation. In between these extremes is the soul—which can exist by itself, without cooperation or competition. The soul is said to be superior to material energy, and the spiritual energy is superior to the soul. Notably, the spiritual energy, the material energy, and the soul, are all, in fact, spiritual—they are all souls. However, the competitive tendency is inferior to the self-satisfied tendency, and the self-satisfied tendency is inferior to the cooperative tendency. Accordingly, matter is called inferior to the soul, and spirit is called superior to the soul. This terminology can be confusing because we tend to forget that they are all souls—but with different tendencies.

The Novel Doctrine of Causality

Having solved all these problems, we now come to the final issue. If God has everything as His part, then why separate everything? Why divide the whole into parts, reflect the part in the whole, and the whole in the part? Why can’t everything just exist as Oneness where all this complexity doesn’t exist? The answer to this question is pleasure. God expands into His parts to enjoy with the parts. The enjoyment of the whole is that the parts are reflected in the whole. And the enjoyment of the parts is that the whole is reflected in the parts. All this complexity exists simply for enjoyment or pleasure.

The whole is the cause and the parts are the effects. The effect exists inside the cause. So, when the effect is manifest, nothing new is created, because it previously existed in the cause. Likewise, because the effect came from the cause, it is not produced ex nihilo. Furthermore, an effect could have been created by a different cause; if we don’t know the cause, all causality would be indeterministic. To know the cause, we look inside the effect, and we see the cause reflected within the effect. When we get effect from the cause, we overcome all forms of unrealism (e.g. that something comes out of nothing). When we get cause from the effect, we overcome all forms of indeterminism (e.g. that the same effect can be produced by another cause, so knowing the effect doesn’t tell us the real cause).

Let’s apply this idea to the explanation of a billiard-ball collision. We already say that the effect was inside the cause—the energy or motion of the ball was in the previous ball, and just got transferred. But the same motion could have been created in two ways—by a moving ball or by a moving cue. Just by observing the motion of the ball, we cannot know whether the ball was pushed by another ball, or by the cue. We need to see the entire sequence from cause to effect, because knowing the effect doesn’t tell us the cause. Now imagine that we had to talk about the origin of the universe. We can see things moving, but the original movement that started the motion is gone. We cannot get it back, and without it, we cannot know what caused the origin. This is the problem of origin in scientific causality.

The same problem doesn’t exist if we say that the cause is within the effect. We don’t have to rewind the universe back to its origin to know how it started, because the cause is within the effect—right here and now. We only need to completely know the effect, to know what caused its origination. If God is the origin of the universe, then as the cause of everything, He is present in all the subsequent effects. Therefore, God is real—here and now—in all the tables and chairs and houses and phones. We don’t have to look to a transcendental world, be liberated, or postulate a hypothetical entity. We only need to revise our notion of causality in which the effect is in the cause, and the cause is in the effect.

This doesn’t mean we can ‘see’ God, just like we cannot see electrons or protons. But we postulate their existence, and we measure the effects. The effects are then used to infer the presence of the cause. This is knowledge by inference, rather than direct perception. God can be known by inference in the same way, but God cannot be perceived this way. This method is called anumāna rather than pratyakśa.

The Problem of Theoretical Knowledge

A simple way to understand knowledge by inference is that you send a question to someone and you get a reply. If the response matches the question, then you say that the responder exists, although we only see the received message, not the responder. Furthermore, if the response can be verified, then you also say that the responder knows the truth. In the same way, knowledge by inference about God is possible if we can communicate with God—send Him questions and get answers. If we get an answer, there is a person. If the answer is always correct, then the person knows the truth. This, by the way, is also how we confirm God’s existence within us: we ask questions and get answers, and if the answers received by inspiration are proven true, then we say that there is true source of knowledge.

Since the scientific method is confirmation by anumāna and not pratyakśa, therefore, it is incomplete. People often mistake this incompleteness—they say that theoretical knowledge is not real knowledge. That, however, entails that there should be no books about God, because all such theoretical stuff cannot capture the nature of reality. This is a false idea. If you write a travelogue on your travels, then reading the travelogue is in one sense same as traveling, and yet not identical to traveling.

The distinction between the travelogue and the travel is that the travelogue is generally incomplete compared to the travel—you are never able to capture the full information about the travel. There are many layers of description. There is something we see, something we understand, something we learn, something surprises us, something hurts us, something we become habituated to, etc. All these constitutes parallel stories and descriptions, but you cannot capture all the stories in a linear textual description. Therefore, you use many descriptions to tell parallel stories. When people read these parallel stories, they think that these must pertain to different travels. The uniqueness about direct perception is only that it resolves this problem—all the descriptions are of the same travel.

The conclusion is that: (1) God can be known by reason, even without direct perception but many complementary descriptions may be needed to make the picture identical to the direct perception, and (2) those obtaining this multifaceted understanding may be motivated toward direct perception. Even those who believe in God, can learn the multi-faceted nature, before they perceive this reality.

Theoretical Knowledge and Current Rationality

A well-accepted fact about these descriptions is that they seem inconceivable or illogical because they necessarily involve modalities—e.g. the object, picture, and seer—which can be semantically identical and yet are different individuals. The same object can cast many pictures. The same picture can exist in many seers. And the same seer can perceive many objects and their pictures. So, in one sense, they are all distinct. But in a perception, the object, picture, and seer are identical. This basic problem of perception needs a non-dualistic system of logic, that we will leave to another occasion.

The problem is not unique to material experience. It also exists in the spiritual world. For example, the devotee sometimes misses the Lord, and in this situation, he knows that he is different from the Lord—this is Dvaita. Then, he sometimes sees the Lord, and understands he is related or connected to the Lord—this is Viśiṣṭādvaita. And finally, sometimes the devotee is so overwhelmed by the devotion to the Lord that he loses his self-identity and starts acting just like the Lord—this is Advaita. Similarly, the Lord sometimes misses His devotee, and then He knows that the devotee is different from Him—this is Dvaita. Then, when He sees the devotee, He knows that He is related to the devotee—this is Viśiṣṭādvaita. And finally, sometimes when He is overwhelmed with love, He acts just like the devotee—this is Advaita.

All three positions can be alternatively true, and yet, the are also eternally true (as a possibility). And because they are eternally and yet alternatively true, the term Bhedābheda is used—the devotee and the Lord are identical, related, and different. But since it is impossible to understand how the same thing can be identical, related, and different, the term Achintya is added to Bhedābheda. This inconceivability arises because the modalities of being identical, different, and related are not separately understood. One of the modes dominates at any one moment; therefore, the Lord and the devotee are sometimes identical, sometimes different, and sometimes related. This modal existence goes beyond conventional logic. But, if logic was modified to incorporate semantic modalities, then the same thing is conceivable.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Why Theism Needs Alternative Causation," in Shabda Journal, May 6, 2020, https://journal.shabda.co/2020/05/06/why-theism-needs-alternative-causation/.