Why Metaphysics is Pointless

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Physics vs. Metaphysics Definition

Western philosophy has a famed distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction began with the idea that appearances are outward projection, while reality is the thing in itself. For example, consider a cheater, who talks suavely and pretends to have your best interests at heart, but in fact, he is trying to deceive you. Here, the bodily appearances (things that we can see) are called physics and the cheater’s thoughts (that we cannot see) are called metaphysics.

The assumption inherent in the appearance vs. reality distinction is that we can never know the reality—e.g., the mind of the cheater. Or that we can only observe the cheater’s behaviors. Thereby, the idea that the cheater has a mind also becomes metaphysics. Now, if someone says that the cheater’s mind can be deduced from his behaviors—e.g., that he sometimes avoids eye contact, or says contradictory things at different times—this would be called the reduction of metaphysics to physics, whereby the mind is an unnecessary hypothesis.

In this article, I will discuss why metaphysics rests on limiting our perception to senses. If the perceptual capacities are broadened to include other faculties that exist in everyone although might be dimmed, then there is nothing behind the appearances; all those things that we thought were behind appearances—and called metaphysics—are seen in the appearances.

The Sixth Sense in Vedic Philosophy

In Bhagavad-Gita 15.7, Lord Kṛṣṇa calls the mind the sixth sense, in addition to the five senses of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. This sixth sense is sometimes called intuition in Western thinking, but it has been systematically ignored by almost all philosophers and scientists. The mind, like all other senses, however, has the same four capacities of emotion, cognition, conation, and relation. By emotion, the mind can have desires or revulsions, just the way the senses have them. By cognition, the mind perceives meanings, just like the five senses perceive sensations. By conation, the mind creates meanings, just like the five senses create sensations during dreams. And by relation, the mind can approach or withdraw from things other than itself (including approaching and withdrawing from the five senses).

Let’s begin with the cognitive aspect of the mind. The mind assigns concepts to percepts. For example, if you see something red, round, and sweet, then the mind can attach the concept apple to it. In general, percepts and concepts underdetermine each other. For example, the combination of red, round, and sweet could also be a nectarine. Likewise, an apple could also be green.

Due to underdetermination, the senses and the mind are complementary senses, which perceive complementary realities. The general principle of underdetermination is that concepts define what the percepts cannot be (e.g., that apples cannot be purple) and percepts define what the concept cannot be (e.g., that something red, round, and sweet is not a tree). As we gather more and more sensations, we progressively eliminate more and more conceptual possibilities. Thereby, we narrow the conceptual assignment to percepts to a very small subset; we have defined what the thing is not. That is not the same as saying what the thing is. This is why the mind becomes necessary. Even otherwise, a mind may be pressed early into service to preempt gathering more and more sensations; if you can tell early on what a thing is, then you can use sensations to confirm things that it is not.

The conative aspect of the mind is responsible for creativity, speculation, interpretation, imagination, invention, and so on. Lord Kṛṣṇa doesn’t emphasize this in the above verse, but they are present in everyone. Like the five senses create sensations during dreaming, the person whose mind is involved in creativity, speculation, interpretation, imagination, or invention is also sometimes said to be dreaming. The mind can alternate between dreaming and perceiving states. For example, when the mind creates some ideas, it is in the conative state; then it alternates to the cognitive state and perceives its own creation. Therefore, when we are dreaming while being awake—e.g., speculating on the nature of reality—we are alternating between conative and cognitive states. Even during dreaming, we are alternating between cognitive and conative states. However, during the waking state, we are only in the cognitive state. Thereby, in one sense, the waking state is an inferior state—it is mostly cognition and little conation. In another sense, the waking state is superior to dreaming, because we are not speculating.

The Western Approach to the Mind

In the West, the cognitive powers of the mind—i.e., the capacity to intuit meanings—are almost completely disregarded. Conversely, the conative power of the mind—i.e., to speculate—is greatly emphasized. We can say that Western intellectuals emphasize daydreaming.

Since the cognitive powers of the mind are almost completely neglected, therefore, a problem of metaphysics is created—the senses can cognize but the mind cannot cognize. What the mind could cognize is, however, reality while what the senses can cognize are mere appearances. Since the mind cannot cognize in Western thinking, therefore, it must speculate on the nature of reality. Those speculations are arbitrary and beyond physics—i.e., what we can perceive by the senses. Nevertheless, society must encourage this speculation to allow everyone to create their own metaphysics.

Thereby, a hypocritical stance on mental conation is created—speculation is encouraged as everyone’s birthright and yet its results are generally derided as metaphysics. It depends on what seems convenient to whom at which place and time. If you like someone’s speculation, you laud them as creative people. If you dislike their ideas, you call their ideological products metaphysics.

Modern science is a good example of this hypocrisy. Scientific concepts such as energy, momentum, mass, charge, gravitational force, electromagnetic field, etc. are speculative ideas, and therefore metaphysics. However, scientists will laud this kind of speculative metaphysics. Conversely, someone else’s metaphysics—e.g., mind, soul, angels, demons, and God—would be derided as being speculation, imagination, invention, storytelling, and guesswork, that has no basis in observation or reality. The fact is, as far as the Western stance on conceptual realities is concerned, both are equally metaphysical.

Immanuel Kant tried to solve this problem by saying that some metaphysical ideas are innate in us; he called them synthetic a priori. They are synthetic because they are not vacuous. And they are a priori because they are innate in us. He proclaimed that ideas like space, time, particle, causality, force, and law are innate in us. Carl Jung then extended his stance to say that the Warrior Hero, Loving Mother, Dutiful Father, Enlightened Teacher, etc. are also innate archetypes, and religion was based on such archetypes. Thereby, both science and religion are equally metaphysics, but they are still entertained as valid subjects because they only seek to uncover the deep-seated or hard-wired notions in our psyche. Neither science nor religion are about a truth separate from us; they are rather our self-discovery. By creating science, or practicing religion, we are simply uncovering the ideas hidden in our psyche.

The Pointlessness of Metaphysics

After Kant and Jung, who rationalized the respective metaphysics of science and religion, the word became pointless, because the question was always: It is metaphysics as opposed to what? Metaphysics was no longer a bad word—an accusation to deride someone you disagree with—because (a) both science and religion use concepts not given by sense perception, and (b) both these concepts are called hard-wired truths in our psyche. This, however, meant that everyone had to agree on some universal science and religion.

With the dawn of liberalism, which permitted everyone to create their own version of the truth, right, and good, a problem arose. Since everyone has the freedom to practice their own religion, which differs in theological doctrines, therefore, you can no longer claim the ubiquity of the same theology. You can no longer say that some religious ideas are innate to the human mind. Likewise, since scientists are free to create their own theories, therefore, you cannot insist on some scientific ideas being ubiquitous hard-wired structures of the mind that everyone had to think in terms of. Basically, freedom to speculate, invent, create, and guess undermined Kantian and Jungian ideas.

The only way you could justify a particular scientific theory or religious ideology is by asserting the superiority of some minds over others. You could, for example, say that European minds are superior to other minds. Therefore, they have pure and perfect innate ideas, which when translated into their science and religion produce the ideal science and religion. This was a great impetus for racism, cultural superiority, and ethnic differentiation. Thereby, all minds are free to speculate, but some minds are culturally superior to others.

What we call modernism today, and is contrasted to post-modernism, was rooted in the purported and assumed superiority of European culture. It led to colonialism, racism, slavery, and exploitation of others because this is the only solution to the problem of metaphysics in Western thinking.

To overcome this problem, there is post-modernism, which counters the claim of superiority and advocates liberalism. Under this liberal idea, everyone is equally free to speculate, and European science and religion are not superior to any other science or religion. Post-modernists emphasize the primacy of the subject in interpreting the object because that is how Kant and Jung rationalized metaphysical ideas of religion and science. The difference simply is that post-modernism rejects the superiority of some minds, considering them equally speculative as any other mind. Ultimately, there is no truth, right, or good. You are free to choose whatever you like and you should not deny others the freedom to choose what they want to. Thereby, liberalism is tied to post-modernism and the politics of racism in the West.

You cannot solve this problem unless you go back to saying that the mind has both cognitive and conative aspects, the conative aspect is not the way to know reality, and reality is to be known by mental cognition. Thereby, truth is decided by better perception, and not by racial superiority. Of course, since people reject intuition as a method to know, this is not an easy path. But that means that society will be lost in the debate of racial superiority, rather than the superiority of mental perception. It will assert mental superiority through bodily factors of skin color, body shape, and history, rather than mental acuity. Since the body underdetermines the mind, and vice versa, therefore, this debate will never be resolved. This is also the pointlessness of metaphysics.

Metaphysics in Vedic Philosophy

Vedic philosophy also uses a metaphysics of three qualities called guna—sattva, rajas, and tamas. According to this metaphysics, the experience of taste is an appearance, and reality is one combination of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Likewise, the experience of smell is an appearance, and the reality is another combination of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Then, your thoughts, judgments, intentions, morals, conations, emotions, and relations, are all different combinations of the three modes of nature. They appear to be different kinds of things in our experience, but under the hood, the reality is simply a combination of qualities. Hence, there is a distinction between appearance and reality, but appearance includes all experiences—senses, mind, intellect, ego, moral sense. And the reality is the three qualities comprising them.

To understand this metaphysics, we have to understand the three qualities of nature. This means: We have to analyze all of our experiences in terms of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Thereby, sweet taste is sattva, sour and spicy taste is rajas, while bitter taste is tamas. The color yellow is sattva, the color red is rajas, and the color blue is tamas. Your food, clothing, housing, emotions, relationships, work, ideas, beliefs, habits, abilities, and everything else that you can imagine, are all comprised of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Therefore, if you learn to see the metaphysical reality in the appearances of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound, then you can use the same metaphysics to understand the mind, intellect, ego, moral sense, emotions, relations, conations, food, clothing, housing, and everything else that you can imagine.

A good example of this metaphysical perception appears in Ayurveda, in which a physician analyses a person’s pulse by putting three fingers at a suitable place on your right-hand wrist. The Vāta pulse is felt under the index finger. The Pitta pulse is felt under the middle finger. And the Kapha pulse is felt under the ring finger. Then, there is a system of qualities such as slow and fast, rough and smooth, sharp and dull, hard and soft, hot and cold—all qualities that you can perceive by touch—which will help you determine the current state of Kapha, Vāta, and Pitta. The Ayurveda physician simply knows how to transform this appearance into a metaphysics of three qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas. By assessing the domination of different qualities in the pulse, he can tell you everything about your body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, moral sense, emotions, relations, conations, and many other things.

Of course, the pulse is not the only way to gauge this metaphysics. A good physician will also observe traits about your body, speech, the way you sit, the tone of your voice, etc. They will use that information to refine the metaphysics of sattva, rajas, and tamas, and prescribe a medicine. They will tell you which foods to avoid, what to eat, and other things to change.

Thereby, a person’s mind is not hidden from a physician just because he is perceiving the body. The mind is therefore not metaphysics, while the body is physics. Rather, both mind and body are appearances of another metaphysics of three qualities. This metaphysics covers your body, senses, mind, thoughts, emotions, relations, works, and so on. It is in physics, not behind physics. In simple words, the reality is in the appearances rather than behind the appearances. The appearances are not the facades that hide or obscure reality. The appearances instead reveal the same reality in many ways, if only we know how to analyze the appearance to understand the reality.

The Capacity to Know the Reality

There is, however, a serious problem in understanding this reality, namely, that if the body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense are all themselves constructed out of sattva, rajas, and tamas, then how can they perceive the qualities different from their own qualitative nature? For example, how will a person addicted to lying understand that someone else may be telling the truth? How will a person habituated to speculation understand that someone else is not speculating, but perceiving the truth?

The fact that our apparatus for cognition, conation, emotion, and relation is itself comprised of the three modes of nature is called material conditioning. It obscures, limits, and hides numerous things from our cognition; it biases us toward certain kinds of actions; it forces us to feel certain likes and dislikes, and it pushes us toward certain kinds of relationships and away from other kinds of relationships. Material conditioning hinders our knowledge.

Therefore, reality, or what we can call metaphysics of three qualities, is not easily perceived by everyone correctly. People misinterpret one quality as another, are drawn toward some qualities over others, act under the influence of quality conditioning, and feel differently toward qualities.

Therefore, in Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Kṛṣṇa speaks about transcending the qualities. This transcendence is presented in many different ways: (a) a description of qualities and how to identify them, (b) regulating our life by duties such that we resist untoward attraction or revulsion toward qualities, (c) drawing the consciousness inward and away from the qualities, and (d) acquiring a nature that transcends these qualities by the practice of devotion. Everyone can identify the three qualities to greater or lesser extents, and that is the starting point. Then, they can regulate their lives by associating with better qualities than the worse ones. Then, they can detach themselves from the world of qualities to reduce the influence of qualities on the apparatus of cognition, conation, emotion, and relation. Finally, they can sustain all these things only if the self is situated in a state beyond the three qualities.

This freedom from material conditioning is called the purification of consciousness. Once the consciousness is purified, the body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense are all purified. Then, cognition is pure, conation is pure, emotion is pure, and relation is pure. Since we are primarily discussing the cognition of reality here, the pure consciousness perceives reality as it is. This simply means that the metaphysics of three qualities is perceived clearly in every kind of sensual and mental appearance.

We could rephrase this: You can know the reality by detaching yourself from that reality and standing apart from it. Only if you are not conditioned by the three qualities, will you perceive the qualities clearly. Therefore, metaphysics doesn’t require speculation about what lies behind appearances. Rather, metaphysics requires us to clearly see what is in the appearances, which is possible if the observer is not itself influenced, biased, conditioned, or prejudiced toward certain limited aspects of the appearances.

The Knower-Knowing-Known Distinction

The three qualities are said to have many manifestations, one of which is the knower, knowing, and known distinction. The knower is predominant in sattva, the knowing is predominant in rajas, and the known is predominant in tamas. For example, the property of taste has three manifestations: (a) the property of taste conditioned by sattva becomes the knower and is called the sense of taste, (b) the property of taste conditioned by tamas becomes the known and is called the object of taste, and (c) the property of taste conditioned by rajas becomes the knowing and is called the activity of tasting.

The first consequence of this description is that the activities of tasting, seeing, touching, smelling, or hearing, are not simply the interactions of a knower and known; rather they are different kinds of interactions, which is why we cannot reduce these interactions to one type. These are loosely responsible for what modern science calls “forces” of nature; there are many kinds of forces. We cannot perceive these forces by a physical measurement; we can only perceive their effects. To understand their differences, one has to note the experiential difference between seeing and tasting.

The second consequence of this description is that taste is not simply in the observer; it is also in reality. Therefore, the world has to be described as taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight, not as quantitative or primary properties like mass, charge, energy, momentum, etc. The observer is qualities or secondary properties, and the observed is also qualities or secondary properties. The difference is simply that the observer’s senses are dominant in sattva, while the observed reality is dominant in tamas. Every observer thus comprises senses (the knower), body (the known), and prāṇa (the power of knowing). Thereby, a person’s “body” comprises three distinct components called senses, the thing to be known, and the power of knowing.

In aśtānga-yoga, first, the thing to be known is regulated, then the power of knowing is regulated, and then the senses are regulated—gradually progressing from tamas to rajas to sattva. These three steps are called āsana (known), prāṇāyāma (knowing), and pratyāhāra (knower) in Yoga Sūtras. Similarly, the power of knowing is manifest from the knower, and the known is manifest from the power of knowing. Thereby, if one is able to master their senses, then they can change their body to a different one. This change of body includes the capacity to control urges like hunger and sleep. It also includes the capacity to heal your illnesses. In a more radical sense, by controlling the senses, it is possible to completely change the species.

The third consequence of this description is that the mind is another kind of sense that perceives meaning. Its capacity to perceive is due to sattva. Its capacity for creativity is due to rajas. And its capacity to store meaning as memories is due to tamas. Thus, a person influenced by tamas has a fantastic memory, some limited creativity, and almost non-existent mental intuition. Thereby, in modern society, people who can memorize subjects pass the exams, but they have very little creativity; they can apply their knowledge to repeated problems, but they cannot solve new problems. Those who have some creativity tend to fail in exams, but they can do better in life afterward, as they can solve new problems. Finally, rare people have the mental intuition to solve a problem in a way that doesn’t create new problems.

The result of qualities is that there is no reason for the mind-body divide. The mind is one combination of three qualities, and the body is another combination of three qualities. These two combinations can interact because they are simply three qualities. And yet, the combination is such that the body underdetermines the mind, and the mind underdetermines the body. Underdetermination is neither full determination nor complete independence. Hence, bodily changes have mental effects, and mental changes have bodily effects, and yet, the mind is not the body, nor is the body the mind. The mental effect doesn’t fully determine the bodily effect, and the bodily effect doesn’t fully determine the mental effect. But since there is an effect, therefore, we cannot say that mind and body are independent.

Tattva vs. Ontology and Metaphysics

Western philosophy doesn’t have a word for what Vedic philosophy calls tattva which equals reality. It employs two words—metaphysics and ontology—both of which are misleading. Metaphysics means that which lies behind appearances, and ontology means appearance. Thereby, there is nothing that is in experience, and yet, not experienced by everyone. This in experience and yet not experienced thing is called tattva or reality in Vedic philosophy. Sometimes, tattva is translated as “essence”, but even that translation is misleading because it is imbued with Platonic notion of essences under which the concepts of chair and table are essences.

Basically, there is no equivalent word for tattva in Western terminology, so whenever we use the terms metaphysics or ontology as translations of tattva, we are misleading people in different ways—by the former reality is behind appearances and the by the latter the reality is equated to appearances. Since we are compelled to use misleading words, it is very hard to explain what we mean by reality in Vedic philosophy. For most people, it is impossible to understand what we mean by knowledge of reality, called Tattva-Jñāna.

The Nature of Tattva-Jñāna

Śrīmad Bhagavatam 1.2.11 states: vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam brahmeti paramātmeti bhagavān iti śabdyate. Here, tattva-vidas means “those who know the tattva”. The word tattvaṁ means “reality” which is neither ontology nor metaphysics. Then what is it? It is described as jñānam advayam or “non-dual knowledge”. This is a radical leap in philosophy, where reality is knowledge. Thereby, if we know something perfectly, then our knowledge comprising percepts and concepts is reality. Reality and appearance are just two copies of the same percept and concept. If, however, we don’t have the knowledge, then our version of percepts and concepts is an illusion. That doesn’t mean that reality is not percepts and concepts. It just means our version of percepts and concepts is not what reality is.

This knowledge is further described in three ways: (a) a source, (b) a clone of the source, and (c) the source within the clone. We can think of knowledge. Suppose a person speaks about himself; his self-knowledge is the source, the speech is the clone of that knowledge, and the speaker is present in the speech as describing himself. If a person says “I am tall”, the sentence doesn’t become tall, because “I” doesn’t refer to the sentence; it refers to the speaker. This reference to the source is the immanent form of the source. Thus, Bhagavān is the source, Brahman is His speech, and Paramātma is His innate presence in the speech. For example, Bhagavān is “I”, Brahman is the sentence “I am tall”, and Paramātma is the “I” in “I am tall” referring to Bhagavān.

Thereby, everything is an expansion of Bhagavān, and it is sentences like “I am tall”, “I am strong”, “I am beautiful”, etc. In these sentences, there is an “I”, represented by Paramātma. Thereby, Paramātma is tattva, and words like “tall”, “strong”, “beautiful” are His pratyaya or attributes. When we see these attributes, we think of objects, but they are not objects; they are sentences, spoken by Bhagavān, which describe Bhagavān. Therefore, when we see a table or chair, we are seeing a description of Bhagavān, spoken by Bhagavān. However, we disconnect that sentence from the source and see the table or chair. If we develop Tattva-Jñāna, then we will not see the table; instead, we will see a description of Bhagavān. This is also like five blind men observing an elephant; instead of saying that they are seeing the leg and stomach of the elephant, they call it cylinder and sphere. What we call table and chair is just like cylinder and sphere. It is the result of our blindness. However, if we become tattva-vidas, or knowers of tattva, then we will call it God’s parts.

The soul is Brahman, which is the speech of Bhagavān. That sentence may be “I am tall”, “I am beautiful”, “I am male”, etc. This “I” in the sentence, however, doesn’t refer to the sentence itself; it refers to the speaker of the sentence. The foolishness is to think that “I am tall” refers to the sentence’s properties, rather than to the speaker’s properties. If that foolishness is destroyed, then the soul realizes that I am a property of God. Realizing the Paramātma simply means separating the attributes from the object of those attributes.

The other revolutionary idea in calling reality non-dual knowledge is that everything in appearance and reality has to be described as meaning. It is not substance, stuff, physics, or other such things. Even the material world is non-dual knowledge, which appears in the problem of underdetermination—mind and body are distinct but not separate; percepts and concepts are distinct but not separate. This is non-duality; it is neither ekatva (oneness) nor is it dvaya (duality). It is non-duality, which means distinct but not separate. All this becomes trivially easy when we think of reality as meaning; cow is neither identical to mammal nor is it separate from the concept of mammal.

The Process of Tattva-Jñāna

The process of Tattva-Jñāna is going deeper. For example, we might see someone’s body right now, which is an appearance. Then we go a little deeper and we get prāṇa. Then we go a little deeper and we get senses. Then we go a little deeper and we get mind. As go deeper and deeper, we get the three qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Then we go even deeper and we get a soul. Then we go even deeper and we get the immanent form of God, present in everything. This deepest truth is also the broadest truth because everything is produced from that truth. Hence, there is no conflict between the process of going deeper and going broader. Depth and breadth give identical results.

Thereby, sattva, rajas, and tamas are not the deepest level of reality, although they are far deeper than the observed phenomena of body, prāṇa, senses, mind, intellect, ego, moral sense, and so on. Our ability to see something in appearance gives us a complementary description of the appearance. For example, at the grossest level, we describe the world as objects. Then, we describe it as activities. Then we describe it as perceptions. Then we describe it as meaning. Then we describe it as judgments. Then we describe it as experiences. Then we describe it as omniscience. This is seeing reality in the appearance; it is a different description of the same appearance. It is not other than the appearance, but it is also not the appearance.

Tattva is a difficult concept if we are accustomed to Western terms because it is neither ontology nor metaphysics. If we can grasp it, then we can use the word tattva to speak about reality and forego ontology and metaphysics. Since most people are not going to be able to do that, it is imperative that we know what we mean by reality, because it is not metaphysics and not ontology.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Why Metaphysics is Pointless," in Shabda Journal, March 15, 2022, https://journal.shabda.co/2022/03/15/why-metaphysics-is-pointless/.