Matter is Not Insentient

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Material Inertness in Religions

It is well-known that the material energy is personified in Vedic texts as Durga. And yet, starting with Advaita, the Vedānta doctrines have designated matter as achit—inert, inanimate, or insentient. Descartes, of course, designated matter as being distinct from the mind in his famous mind-body dualism. Christian theologians have also treated matter as dead and inert.

Since both science and religion agree that matter is inert, therefore, religions do not challenge the scientific ideas of mathematical laws and determinism. Intelligent Design Theories, for instance, accept the laws of modern science as being designed by a higher intelligence (although that higher intelligence may not be called God). Thus, all the disagreements between religion and science appear to be focused on the nature of the soul and God: In modern science, whether they exist, and in other religions, on their real nature.

Thereby, numerous problems about the interaction between the sentient and the insentient are created. For instance, if God is sentient, then how does He control matter? Is He pushing matter like a man pushes a cart? Likewise, if the soul controls matter, then is its will like the gravitational force? In this article, I will discuss the reasons why matter is also sentient, and without such sentience, it is impossible to account for dharma and karma in nature. I will then also discuss the difference between the sentience of matter and soul, due to which they are described as inferior and superior sentience, respectively, rather than sentient and inert.

Material Inertness in Science

In Newton’s physics, the inertness of matter is called inertia—i.e., its inability to change its state of rest or motion on its own. A force external to an object pulls inertia to move it. Due to the capacity to exert a force, there is causality in matter. So, in what way can we call it inert? The answer could be that matter is moving due to external rather than internal causality. Internal causality can be spontaneous, like human free will. But external causation requires push or pull. Even this force cannot be due to internal causation—i.e., some free will—to remain consistent with the previous idea that matter has no internal causation. Hence, the external force must be deterministic.

This is where a distinction between the modern idea of matter being inert and the religious idea of the soul being sentient (able to control matter) appears. Since many things—e.g., digestion and immunity—happen on their own, therefore, we cannot say that the soul controls everything. And yet, the soul must be able to control something in the body for it to be sentient. Since religions are unable to explain how the soul can intervene in matter, therefore, scientists will say: We have no free will. There may be an illusion of free will, and how that illusion is created may be unknown. But there cannot be a conscious intervention in the laws of nature, as all laws will then be false.

How the Soul Interacts with Matter

To solve this problem, we have to understand how the soul interacts with matter. The process is complex, but I have recently found a simple analogy to illustrate it. Imagine that you open the YouTube app on your phone. If you are a newcomer to YouTube, the app will show you a wide assortment of videos and try to glean your interests. Your choice is simple: scroll or pause. If you pause, then YouTube learns your preferences and uses them to show you more videos of the same type that you have seen before.

In the same way, material energy generates desire, impressions, and impulses automatically like YouTube shows you videos. However, you have the choice to scroll or pause. If you keep scrolling, then the material energy will show you something different. But if you pause, it will learn what you are doing—which is called habit formation—and show you the same things again and again.

The material energy is addictive in the same way that social media is, and it controls the soul in the same way that YouTube algorithms control the viewer. And yet, by changing your pause-scroll behaviors, you can change the videos that YouTube shows you. Similarly, by associating and dissociating with different phenomena, the soul can change its experiences.

Soul-Matter Interaction Creates History

YouTube must “know” that you have paused the screen. In the same way, the material energy must know that you have accepted or rejected some material qualities produced automatically. If material energy is totally insentient, then how can it know what you are doing? Then, how can it tailor your successive experiences? Material energy has to know your choices to create a repository of your “history” and use it to show you successive things. And yet, it can seem insentient just like a YouTube app seems to be insentient to all of us.

The “knowing” by the material energy exists as the “history” of our choices. This is like YouTube stores the history of our pauses and scrolls. Spiritual emancipation is the process of deleting this history and exiting the YouTube app. Further progress in spiritual life means using another app in which our history is also stored but those are not the choices of selfish gratification.

The difference between modern science and the science that explains the causality in matter based on the soul’s choices is history. In modern science, the past doesn’t exist in the present, and it has no causal influence on the present. To solve the soul-body problem, we can say that the successive bodies are like successive videos on the YouTube screen, and pausing and scrolling of this succession creates a new sequence of videos. Scrolling means that some thought emerges in our consciousness, and we withdraw our consciousness from that thought; that thought disappears while a new one appears. Pausing means that when this new thought appears, we focus on it, and the thought then develops through successive stages as described in Sāñkhya leading eventually to sensual activities. And the sequence of videos we see is based on the past history of things we have chosen or rejected.

Three Types of Knowledge

You might now counterargue: The history of events or memory of the past doesn’t require sentience because even a computer disk can store that history! That is true, but it is not the whole truth, because computer disks cannot store first-person feelings. For example, suppose YouTube shows you videos that you don’t like, but you have no other entertainment, so might go on watching some video. YouTube will interpret your selection as a liking, when in fact, you are looking for something better but not able to find it.

Sentience is not required when we are measuring the effects of choices but it is required when we are trying to understand how a person feels—happy or sad, excited or bored, angry or calm. By knowing these feelings, we get a true understanding of a person’s nature. If we only know a person’s actions, we never know the person. Their actions can in fact be interpreted differently based on the interpreter’s attitudes toward the same thing. For instance, a jealous person often criticizes others, and he might therefore think that every criticism of others must be based on jealously rather than truth.

This problem also exists in the interpretation of meanings—i.e., what a person is doing—but it is most pronounced in understanding why a person is doing something. If the observation of actions is complete, then we perfectly know how a person is doing something. That doesn’t fully determine what and why. For example, if the sequence of words is how, then by reading those words, we cannot fully determine the sentence’s meaning—the what—because the meaning is also determined by the context in which things are said. Then, even if we know the context, we cannot determine why the person is saying so, because that reasoning is the unique individuality of the speaker. Thereby, actions are third-person knowledge, contexts are second-person knowledge, and moods are first-person knowledge. Sentience is not needed for third-person knowledge. It is needed more for second-person knowledge, and it is absolutely necessary for first-person knowledge. The combination of these three types of knowledge is necessary to understand every action completely—e.g., how was something said, what was said, and why it was said.

Why History Needs Sentience

The material energy is sentient because the memory or history of events is combined with their feelings. Hence, we can talk about “happy memories” and “painful memories”. However, we can never perfectly understand these feelings without sentience. If matter is not sentient, then there would be events, without meaning and feeling. But we know that the reverse is true.

For instance, we might often forget the exact words spoken by a person (the how), but we remember what they said. Then, we paraphrase that meaning using our words, expressing the same meaning. Likewise, we might forget even what was said, but we might still remember how we felt about it.

Our memories are structured from why to what to how. How is further elaborated into who, where, and when. As we get old, we forget the times, places, and the persons quickly. Then slowly we forget the exact words, and what was said. We forget the feelings associated with that interaction last.

A computer disk stores the where, when, who, and how. Of course, in Vedic philosophy, even where, when, who, and how are qualities. For example, where is a type of location (home vs. office) not just an address. Similarly, time is good or bad, right or wrong, not just the number on a clock. A computer cannot give where, when, who, and how qualitative meanings, but it can register numbers. A computer disk cannot register the meaning (what) and feeling (why). And without these nuances, it can never equal the memory that we hold. The type of memory we hold requires sentience. And since that memory is stored in matter, therefore, matter has to be sentient.

This sentience explains why so many things work automatically without our conscious intervention—e.g., our automated fight or flight responses, digestion, blood circulation, etc.—although they are conditioned by the past which means that they don’t work the same way in everyone. Similarly, the sentience explains why conscious intervention can alter or arrest the automatic activity. Thereby, we can say that nature works automatically for the most part, and yet, it can be controlled by our will. That sentient control of nature is possible only because nature is also sentient and not insentient.

Dharma and Karma in Nature

An understanding of feelings—e.g., what we enjoy and suffer—is essential to karma. If we don’t account for a person’s feelings, then there is no measure for ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If we don’t account for the context, then there is no definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Then, there would be no way to decide the punishment of the wrong deeds and rewarding of the right deeds. Sentience in nature, however, can reward us according to what we find pleasing, and punish us in the way we find displeasing. Thus, the law of karma, or tit-for-tat, doesn’t mean the inversion of the previous actions. It rather means reward and punishment for actions in the way that we will enjoy or suffer.

If we enjoy eating sweet food items and suffer eating spicy food items, but another person enjoys spicy food items and suffers sweet food items, then good karma can be accumulated by feeding the other person spicy food and enjoyed by obtaining sweet food. Tit-for-tat is not the opposite reaction to action in Newton’s mechanics (if you push a table by a force F, then the table exerts F back). Action and reaction are rather mediated by a contextual right and wrong duty to decide if a duty was fulfilled or violated, followed by the reward or punishment based on the individual definition of good and bad.

Hence, even the law of karma requires sentience in the form of contextuality and individuality. When such sentience is acknowledged in nature, then we can grasp that even the semantic conceptions of where, when, who, and how are necessary while their physical counterparts are causally irrelevant.

Superior and Inferior Energies

Now, you can ask: If material nature is also sentient, then why is it called the “inferior energy” while the soul is called the “superior energy”? The answer is that the material energy cannot love the Lord in the same way that the soul can. The material energy is like a servant of the Lord—the Lord asks for something, and the material energy fulfills it. However, the material energy will not do anything voluntarily for the Lord—i.e., without His asking. The soul can, however, do things for the Lord even if He doesn’t ask for them. Due to its voluntary nature, the soul can do things that are contrary to the Lord’s will, or things compatible with the Lord’s will, although not requested by Him.

We can illustrate this difference through the following simple example. In a restaurant, the chef makes the items that we ask for. The chef, however, will not make those items unless we ask for them. In contrast, a mother will cook for her child those things that they will enjoy even though the child hasn’t asked for them. The material energy is similar to the chef who will cook only those things that are ordered by the Lord. And the soul is like the mother who will happily cook items for the Lord’s pleasure even without being asked.

Both the chef and the mother are sentient beings, but the mother exhibits the qualities of love whereas the chef does not. The chef can in fact know far more recipes and have greater expertise in cooking compared to the mother. But the mother’s cooking is more satisfying because it is done with love. When you order something in a restaurant, there is no element of surprise. But if a mother cooks for her child, then there is an element of surprise. When the surprises are always pleasant, then the happiness is greater. That happiness makes us say that the mother’s cooking is better than restaurant food.

In the same way, material energy is far more accomplished, powerful, and capable than the soul. However, the soul is still superior to matter because of its capacity to love the Lord in a way that material energy cannot. Hence, there is no contradiction between Durga being the controller of material universes, and the soul being a small puppet in the material world, and yet, the soul still being called the superior energy relative to matter. The soul’s superiority is based on love, while Durga’s superiority is based on power and capability.

Insentient Ideas of Matter

Starting with Advaita, many in the Vedic tradition have equated this superior and inferior distinction to sentient and insentient, completely disregarding the fact that material energy is also a person. This idea is also accepted in Christianity, leading to the claim that the soul is empowered to exploit material nature. After all, matter is insentient, so no one is being hurt in the process. This idea then crept into modern science through Cartesian mind-body dualism, where matter is insentient, while the mind is sentient, thereby creating a schism between religion and science as dealing with two separate domains (science with the body and religion with the mind). As the study of matter based on insentience progresses, it rejects the existence of the soul and God which were previously considered sentient because it is impossible to explain the interaction between the sentient and the insentient.

The problem is that when religions counter atheism, they are half-guilty of advocating that matter is insentient. Many people thereby talk about consciousness not being a product of dead matter. However, they cannot explain how the sentient intervenes in the working of the insentient. If the insentient matter is working according to mathematical laws, then God and the soul are not in control. Then, why do we need the soul and God, if they are not in control of the material reality? Why, in fact, would we need dharma, karma, and reincarnation, if there is no volitional control over matter?

To solve that problem, we have to begin with the idea that matter is not insentient. In fact, matter has the same properties of sat, chit, and ānanda as the soul. Hence, there is a capacity to know the soul’s activities, meanings, and feelings quite like a sentient being knows another. The sentient being called matter may not love the soul, and it is hard for the soul to love such a sentient being, but the absence of love doesn’t mean that the other person is not sentient. After all, don’t we interact with thousands of sentient beings who do not love us, but who are truthful, righteous, and well-intentioned?

Religion Must Reject Insentience

We cannot completely fault modern science for atheism because religious theories have had the same adversarial view about matter, which led to mind-body dualism and then to the rejection of the mind. If instead matter is also sentient, then the soul-body interaction is an interaction between two souls.

That interaction can be modeled as a conversation between two persons. Whatever we call “inert matter” is like words exchanged in a conversation. However, behind those words there is a mind with meanings. Behind those meanings are three kinds of judgments involving the truth, good, and right (which involve the intellect, ego, and moral sense). Those three judgments employ three kinds of criteria, namely, universality, individuality, and contextuality. And behind these three criteria is the will of the souls that choose the assumptions or axioms about what is true, right, and good.

Now, it is very easy to study matter: Matter is like a moderated discussion forum, in which souls converse. Each soul starts with some assumptions and considers them true, right, and good. When they speak, a historical record of their conversations is created, which moves them from one conversation to another, one forum to another, in the process modifying their assumptions of what is true, right, and good. The creator and moderator of the discussion forum moves the participants until they arrive at the perfect truth, right, and good. Then, the soul moves into another forum and conversation—the spiritual energy—where the truth, right, and good don’t change. The charge of insentience is easily dropped when all the conversations are intelligent, appropriate, and pleasing. However, the charge of insentience is false even when the conversations are unintelligent, inappropriate, or displeasing.

The Vedic religion describes matter as a personality called Durga. She is like the chef who can cook anything for us, provided we can pay for it. But just because She will not cook unless we can pay, doesn’t mean She is insentient. When things seem to work automatically, it is because we are not needed in Her kitchen. When we suffer, it is because She has restricted the choices for us on the menu. The automatic working of nature, the restriction of choices, and the working based on our demands are all based on sentience in nature.

Advaita falsely claimed that Brahman is sentient and māyā is insentient. This idea was then carried forward in other Vedānta doctrines like Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita. This idea also exists in other religions and modern science. Hence, most people accept it unquestioningly. Then, they are embroiled in intractable problems such as mind-body dualism, the rejection of soul and God due to the partial successes of insentient modeling of matter, and the conflict between religion and science. Then, some people say that matter is intelligently designed, because they are trying to solve the science-religion conflict, without solving the mind-body dualism or how the sentient can control the insentient. Factually, there is no solution to any of these problems except that which begins by accepting that matter is also sentient.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Matter is Not Insentient," in Shabda Journal, January 14, 2022,