The Nyāya Conception of a Scientific Theory

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Below is the translation and commentary on some of the Nyāya Sutras, which describe the nature of a scientific theory as comprised of four aspects. The first aspect represents the purpose of the system; the second, the functional parts that execute this purpose; the third, a mechanism of control that translates the purpose into functional activities; and fourth, a system that maintains coherence in the system and allows it to persist over time. These descriptions can be easily understood if we think of ‘science’ as the description of a system–e.g., a human body, an organization, or a society–which embodies a purpose, has functional parts, a system of control to translate the purpose into action, and something that keeps the system cohesive over long periods of time. The general doctrine of such systems defines a “scientific theory” in Nyāya and it is radically different from mechanistic conceptions of scientific theories. The understanding of such non-mechanistic conceptions of science is important to those interested in alternative forms of scientific theories.

Sutra 1.1.26

तन्त्राधिकरणाभ्युपगमसंस्थितिः सिद्धान्तः

tantrādhikaraṇābhyupagamasaṃsthitiḥ siddhāntaḥ

tantra—a mechanism; adhikaraṇa—supervises; abhyupagama—the agreement; saṃsthitiḥ—a system or arrangement; siddhāntaḥ—a scientific theory.


A scientific theory is a mechanism that supervises or controls the agreement in a system or arrangement.


Modern science formulates theories of individual things, but Nyāya describes a theory or doctrine to be the explanation of a system or arrangement of things. This is a rejection of reductionism or the idea that the whole can be reduced to independent parts. Our bodies, for example, are complex arrangements in which each part performs a distinct function. By these functions, a coherent system is produced. But what keeps this system together? Why doesn’t it break apart into pieces—like it should if the parts were independent? This is the fundamental role of propounding a doctrine. The world around us exists as coherent systems. These include the small cells in our body, their organization into organs, which then organize into our body. These bodies are collected into societies, which then exist as part of ecosystems, which collectively form a planet. What holds all these things together, and why do they exist cohesively? The explanation of this coherence and cohesion and the supervising mechanism that keeps things coherent and cohesive requires an explanation. The essential purpose of a scientific doctrine is to provide such an explanation. Innate in this description of ‘science’ is the idea that there aren’t many theories of nature; there is rather one ‘science’ that explains how order emerges in nature. This order spans across many types of parts and their organization into a whole. This type of theory is called a General Systems Theory at present, which studies the world as organized systems rather than a collection of independent parts.


Sutra 1.1.27

सः चतुर्विधः सर्वतन्त्रप्रतितन्त्राधिकरणाभ्युपगमसंस्थित्यर्थान्तरभावात्

saḥ caturvidhaḥ sarvatantrapratitantrādhikaraṇābhyupagamasaṃsthityarthāntarabhāvāt

saḥ—that doctrine; caturvidhaḥ—four kinds; sarva—everything or the whole; tantra—mechanism; pratitantra—each mechanism; adhikaraṇa—the controlling system; abhyupagama—the agreeing; saṃsthiti—a system or arrangement; arthāntara—the difference of meaning; bhāvāt—exists.


That doctrine has four parts—the doctrine of the whole, the doctrine of each thing, the doctrine of a control system, and the doctrine of how things exist in agreement as a system or arrangement despite differences in meanings.


After describing the purpose of a scientific theory, this sutra further elaborates on the four aspects of such a theory. These four aspects are the whole, the parts, how the whole controls the parts, and how the parts remain coherently organized within the whole. To illustrate this idea, we can think of an institution or organization. The organization comprises many roles, some of which are higher while others are lower. The higher role controls the lower roles, and through this control, the organization attains the goals that it has set for itself. Nevertheless, the members of the organization can be replaced one by one, preserving the organizational structure. Thus, we can discern four distinct parts in an organization. First, there is a leader of the organization, who embodies the purpose of the whole organization. Second, there are members of the organization. Third, there is a system of governance in the organization due to which the goals of the organization are translated into the organization’s activities. And fourth, there is a system that maintains coherence within the organization. Each of these four aspects will be further elaborated in the subsequent sutras.

By analogy, a scientific theory of nature must also describe reality as the composition of four distinct aspects—(a) the leader or purpose of the organization, (b) the member parts of the organization, (c) the system of governance in the organization by which the leader controls the organization, and (d) the method by which the organization maintains coherence in the face of ongoing change.

We can think of the same problem in terms of our bodies. The body has many parts such as hands, legs, stomach, chest, etc. However, the head is the leading part that controls the other parts. This control of the body is affected through the nerves that connect the head to the various parts of the body. And there is a system of immunity and hormones that keep the body coherent.

Here a broad non-reductionistic sketch of a system of organization is presented. In this sketch, there are many parts, but these parts are organized hierarchically, and therefore, the system has a hierarchical structure. The head at the top of this hierarchy controls this system through the hierarchy. Therefore, the hierarchy serves the purposes of functional control and the coherence between the parts. One key aspect of this sutra is the separation between the control system and the coherence system. In our body, for example, the control system is conscious, whereas the coherence system is unconscious. By the control system, we can direct our senses to act in various ways. But in addition, there is an unconscious system of health and immunity that keeps the system functioning. The implication of this sutra is that this should be the general model by which everything must be described. And a scientific theory is therefore defined to be that doctrine which supplies such a rational description.


Sutra 1.1.28

सर्वतन्त्राविरुद्धः तन्त्रे अधिकृतः अर्थः सर्वतन्त्रसिद्धान्तः

sarvatantrāviruddhaḥ tantre adhikṛtaḥ arthaḥ sarvatantrasiddhāntaḥ

sarvatantra—the whole system; aviruddhaḥ—not opposed; tantre—the system; adhikṛtaḥ—that rules over; arthaḥ—the purpose; sarvatantrasiddhāntaḥ—the principle of the whole system.


The system that rules over the purpose of the whole system and is not opposed to the whole system, is the principle of the whole system.


Again, we can understand this sutra by the example of an organization’s leader who controls the organization. The leader represents a part of the system, and yet the whole system, because he or she represents the purpose for which the system exists. Every organization is formed for a certain purpose. That purpose then expands into a structure of functional roles. And those functional roles are then populated by individuals. The leader embodies all three of these. First, his goal is the fulfillment of the organization’s goals. Second, he is the head of the organizational structure. Third, he is a member of the organization.

Similarly, the head in the body holds the goal for the existence of the body. The head controls the rest of the body. And the head is a part of the body.

The only reason the head of an organization would be replaced is that his or her goals stopped being the goals of the organization, or he or she became incapable of administering the organization. Then the individual occupying the position of the organization’s head would be replaced by another person. Therefore, the sutra states that the head must not be inconsistent with the rest of the system. Of course, in our bodies, we cannot easily replace the head. But in an organization, such replacements are fairly routine in modern times.

The system that represents the whole is not physically the whole in this case. The whole is rather semantically the purpose of the whole thing. This means that if we merely think of each of the parts, we might not see the purpose of its existence. But as we aggregate the parts, then the purpose becomes visible. The part of the whole that represents that purpose constitutes the ‘whole’. In a physicalist doctrine, we would think of the whole as a physical aggregation of the parts. But in this sutra, this whole represents the purpose of the whole.


Sutra 1.1.29

समानतन्त्रसिद्धः परतन्त्रासिद्धः प्रतितन्त्रसिद्धान्तः

samānatantrasiddhaḥ paratantrāsiddhaḥ pratitantrasiddhāntaḥ

samāna—the class or commonality; tantra—the system; siddhaḥ—the fulfillment; paratantra—the other system; asiddhaḥ—the non-fulfillment; pratitantra—every system; siddhāntaḥ—the principle.


The principle of every system (i.e., the parts) is that the fulfillment of the class or commonality of that system is the nonfulfillment of the (class or commonality) of the other systems.


We can understand this sutra by the example of the members of an organization. Each member of the organization (including the head of the organization) has a different role or function, which constitutes the ‘class’ of that member. For example, some person works in engineering, while others work in marketing, finance, human resources, manufacturing, etc. Even within the various departments of an organization, each person performs a unique role. Many such roles collectively fulfill the function or duties of the department. As a result, the members of an organization can be described in two ways. First, they are unique individuals or persons. Second, they have unique roles or organizational functions. Hence, we can call the head of the organization, the “CEO”. Then we can have heads of sales, marketing, engineering, human resources, and so on. Similarly, we can designate each person in an organization by the role they play.

This sutra extends this idea to the study of all systems and defines the part of the system as something that always performs a unique role that is not performed by any other part in the system. Hence, that part can be designated by a different class in the system. By that designation, it also gets a unique name.

For example, a car comprises many parts such as the engine, transmission, gears, wheels, brakes, accelerator, steering, lights, seats, dashboard, etc. Each part is identified by a unique class, as they perform a unique function, not fulfilled by the other parts. Each part is also a materially individual thing. Thus, we can describe the world materially as these unique things. And we can describe the same world as unique functional roles. This sutra insists that the scientific theory must describe how the system or parts functions as a whole, which requires designating each part with a unique class of functionality.


Sutra 1.1.30

यत्सिद्धौ अन्यप्रकरणसिद्धिः सः अधिकरणसिद्धान्तः

yatsiddhau anyaprakaraṇasiddhiḥ saḥ adhikaraṇasiddhāntaḥ

yatsiddhau—by the fulfillment of which; anyaprakaraṇa—the other events; siddhiḥ—fulfilled; saḥ—that; adhikaraṇasiddhāntaḥ—the principle of control.


By the fulfillment of which the other events are fulfilled, that is the principle of control.


A good example of a control system in the human body is the system of nerves and veins that transmit and receive control signals to and from the brain and the other parts of the body. The brain is the controller—just like the leader of an organization. The body parts such as hands and legs are the parts that are controlled by the brain—just like the members of an organization. And the veins and nerves are the control system whose sole purpose is to get something else to behave in a certain way. These veins and nerves form a parallel system to the one comprising of the parts, and they give the whole system a control structure. For example, in a car, when the brakes are pressed, a signal is transmitted to the wheels, which causes the wheels to stop. Likewise, when the accelerator is pressed, then a signal is transmitted to the engine, which increases the flow of gasoline into the engine. This system of signal transmission and reception, which is then used to control the parts is called the ‘control’ system.


Sutra 1.1.31

अपरीक्षिताभ्युपगमात्तद्विशेषपरीक्षणं अभ्युपगमसिद्धान्तः

aparīkṣitābhyupagamāttadviśeṣaparīkṣaṇaṃ abhyupagamasiddhāntaḥ

aparīkṣita—the untestable; abhyupagama—in coherence; attad—obtained or perceived; viśeṣa—the details or specifics; parīkṣaṇaṃ—the verification; abhyupagamasiddhāntaḥ—the principle of being coherent.


The principle of being coherent is the verification that the details or specifics (parts) are perceived to be in coherence by that which is not testable (i.e., that it remains invisible).


This sutra separates the principle of control from that of coherence. To understand this separation, we can think of a computer. The user interface of the computer—e.g., the buttons on an application—create signals which then control the rest of the computer. However, the computer also has an operating system that allows the control system, the intended purpose, and the various parts to function cohesively. The operating system, for instance, can forbid one part (that is not designated to control the whole system) from becoming the controller. The operating system gives fair access to all the parts to allow them to function. Its central role is to ensure that the computer doesn’t crash, one part doesn’t destroy the other parts, and parts are treated fairly in a system. The separation of the control and the coherence systems is like that between the purpose for which the system exists (e.g., the user interface which makes the system useful) and the fairness system which makes the system persistent (e.g., the operating system in a computer which manages the system’s operations).

The system of coherence constitutes a set of rules that define the correct and incorrect operation of the system. In the case of a society, for example, these rules are meant to ensure that the society survives over time. The survival of the society is quite different from its other goals—such as prosperity, happiness, or other kinds of economic and political objectives. The government makes the decisions about the goals of the society. But another system must ensure that these pursuits do not destroy society. This is generally achieved by enacting a system of rules to be followed by every member of the society, including the government which controls the society, and the military, police, or bureaucracy, which translate the government’s will onto the people as societal control. Hence, although the government is the controller of the society, it cannot act whimsically. Even though the police, government, and bureaucracy are controlled by the government, they cannot disobey the principle of society’s existence.

A good analog of the coherence system would be the immune system in the body. Its central purpose is to ensure that the body has longevity. What we do with the body is not controlled by the immune system, and in that sense, there is a separation of the controlling system (e.g., the brain) and the coherence system (e.g., the system of hormones). The brain can for instance push the body to work very hard toward some goals, and the immune system will then trigger a collapse and force the body to rest for longevity.

Similarly, the principles of the health of society—namely, the moral principles of duty and responsibility—are independent of society’s goals. If the goals force immorality on the society, then they jeopardize its longevity. In that sense, the laws of a society should not be whimsically changed because these laws are like the immune system that ensures that the body survives over time; the laws of the land should not be tailored to make it achieve different goals; these laws should be the principles of the health of the social system.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Nyāya Conception of a Scientific Theory," in Shabda Journal, February 4, 2021,