The Modal Conception of Reality

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Human Modes of Understanding

Even as Western epistemology is defined as the theory  knowledge, owing to numerous dualisms in Western philosophy, such as the separation of the observer and the observed, it has never been clear if epistemology can meet its goals. In this article, I will discuss the problems of epistemology, and what they tell us about the observer and the observed.

The first problem of knowledge is that the world must conform to our modes of understanding. These include sensations like smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound, concepts such as table and chair, and judgments like truth, right, and good. Without a correspondence between our modes of understanding and the world, everything we perceive, think, and judge would be false.

If reality was not smellable, tasteable, seeable, touchable, or hearable, then properties of the world corresponding to the senses of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound would not register anything in our senses. For instance, a speedometer cannot measure temperature. If our senses were like a speedometer, while the world was temperature, then they would not register anything. If our senses were only like a thermometer while the world was both speed and temperature, then sense-perception would only produce a partial understanding of the world.

Likewise, we conceptualize the world through ideas such as tables and chairs. Western philosophy has, for a very long time, considered these unreal; they are called our ideas about a world that is completely different. However, Western philosophy has also held that the world is conceivable. Scientific concepts include ideas like particles and waves, space and time, interrelationships and causality, logic and mathematics. But there is no clarity on the double standard with regard to concepts—Why are some concepts real and other concepts unreal? Similarly, how can we establish that certain concepts like beauty and justice are unreal when they are more pervasive, successful, and practical than the concepts of science?

Let’s assume that our minds are like thermometers whereas the world is like speed speed. Just like a thermometer cannot register speed, similarly, everything our minds conceive would be unlike reality. That dissimilarity between the observer and the observed would preclude any knowledge. Then, if reality was a superset of properties only a subset of which were conceivable by the mind, reality would be known partially. Finally, if our minds were capable of a superset of concepts, only a subset of which apply to reality, we would have to justify why a certain subset of the mind applies to the world and restrict all attempts at knowing the world to that subset.

We can summarize these problems as follows. If our modes of knowing are a subset of the modes of reality, then we cannot know reality completely. If our modes of knowing are a superset of the modes of reality, then we cannot justify our knowledge. In the former case, there is no method to knowledge; in the latter, there is no justification for knowledge. Knowledge is possible if and only if our modes of understanding precisely coincide with reality.

The Contradiction in Knowing

The second problem with knowing is that knowledge must be rational, but knowledge gained through the senses and the mind violates ordinary principles of binary logic. For example, when you see an apple and use concepts such as red, round, sweet, and apple to cognize it, all these concepts are both in the mind and the world. If the concepts were only in the mind and not in the world, then our cognition would be false. If the concepts were only in the world, and not in the senses and the mind, then the world would not be known. The simultaneous presence of the same concepts creates problems.

The main problem is that since the apple exists outside of our senses and the mind, therefore, the apple is different from us. The apple doesn’t cease to exist if we don’t know about it. And yet, at the point of knowing, all those concepts also exist in the senses and the mind, therefore, the state of the senses and the mind is not different from that of the apple. In brief, the observer and the observed are neither totally different nor totally identical. More precisely, the observer and the observed are distinct individuals and yet they are conceptually identical at the point of truthful observation.

Universals and individuals are two modalities of knowing. If we remove the modalities, then the fact that the observer and observed are neither identical nor different creates a logical paradox. The resolution of the paradox necessitates the use of modalities. Hence, knowledge is inconceivable in non-modal logic, and conceivable in modal logic. Modality implies that two entities can be different in one sense and identical in another sense. For example, the apple in our senses and the mind is identical to the apple outside our senses and the mind conceptually, but the two are different individuals.

Likewise, the identity between the observer and the observed only exists in some contexts—e.g., when we are observing the apple. It is not a universal conceptual identity. For instance, we don’t become an apple by observing an apple. Likewise, a context will reveal different things for different individuals.

Since knowledge is possible only when our modes of understanding are identical to that of the world, therefore, the presence of modalities in our knowing requires that reality must also be modal. Just as knowing requires the use of universality, individuality, and contextuality, similarly, reality must also comprise modes. If modes are restricted to our knowledge, then reality will be contradictory. If modes are restricted to reality, then our knowledge would be contradictory. In the former case, our knowledge claims will not pertain to reality; in the latter, even these claims will contradict each other.

The Modal Conception of Reality

Based on the above problems, we can conclude that the mere possibility of knowledge requires a modal conception of the observer and the observed. By the first problem, the observer itself is modal—there are multiple modes of knowing—sensation, conception, and judgment—to which the world must conform. By the second problem, each mode must be subdivided into universality, contextuality, and individuality. For example, the idea of yellow is universal; there are many individual instances of yellow; and the same thing can be called yellow or not yellow in different contexts, without a contradiction.

The mere possibility of knowledge thus tells us many things: (A) that the observer and the observed must be modal, (B) they must be modal in the same way to avoid ignorance and contradictions, (C) the existence of modalities like sensation, conception, and judgment in the observer entails that these exist in the observed as well, and (D) the existence of modalities like universality, individuality, and contextuality in the observed entails that these exist in the observer too. Now, we can dissolve all the dichotomies in philosophy, such as the idea that the observer and the observed are fundamentally different. This is because they are both constructed out of a certain set of common and shared modalities.

Thereby, the observer can be observed, and the observed can be an observer. The relation between observer and observed—what we call observing—defines a connection between the two. In simple words, the mind and the senses can also be known but knowing these is not the same as being them because when we know them, they are the observed, but when they know, they are observers. Knowing that someone is in pain is not the same as being in that pain. This is again due to modalities.

The Linguistic Form of Modalities

Once we understand that reality and its knowledge are modalities, then we need yet another modality to linguistically express that knowledge. The problem is that linguistic communications can be fictional; they exist but they are not knowledge. Conversely, they can be used to convey knowledge and reality. Hence, linguistic communication is neither totally identical nor totally different from reality.

If only reality and its knowledge were possible, then we could know, but we could not impart that knowledge to others through the use of language. The fact that we can communicate knowledge, but the linguistic representation is not identical to knowing, and yet not different from that knowledge, requires us to formulate reality, knowledge, and language as modes. Hence, what we call a table is also a linguistic-symbolic representation. Likewise, when we think of a table, that too is a linguistic-symbolic representation. If and only if these two representations are identical can we claim to know the reality.

The practice of science requires a linguistic communication of reality. It cannot be different from reality. And it cannot be different from how we perceive and conceive reality by our senses and the mind. This doesn’t mean that reality, its sensation, and the linguistic-symbolic representation are identical. It just means that they cannot be different. Language is a mode of knowledge and reality, that allows us to communicate reality and knowledge, but reality and knowledge can exist without communication. When communicated, the linguistic-symbolic representation cannot be called not knowledge or reality. And it cannot be equated to reality and knowledge. This conclusion necessitates the use of modalities.

The Reduction of Modalities

We have discussed several modalities—(A) observer, observed, observing, (B) sensing, conceiving, and judging, (C) universal, individual, and contextual, and (D) reality, knowledge, and language. All these modalities, we have noted, must exist in us and the external reality for the reality to be knowable, for knowledge to be consistent, and for the consistent knowledge to be communicable to others who know reality via language. But are these the only modalities? If not, how many such modalities can exist?

The answer is infinite because, in a modal conception of reality, everything becomes a mode. For example, the color, shape, and size are different modes of a table; the object, its properties, and the attachment of some property to some objects are also modalities. Therefore, there are as many modes as there can be words. The fact that we can express all knowledge and reality in words gives us the mechanism to say that all of science can be reduced simply to the study of words in a natural language.

Now, just as we can reduce language to fewer elementary sounds, similarly, we can reduce the modalities to some elementary modes from which more complex modes can be constructed. The possibility of reducing infinite diversity to a parsimonious list of elementary modes creates the science of modes under which everything can be reduced to and constructed from an elementary mode-set.

Why Vedic Philosophy Seems Strange

All the above conclusions don’t require anything from Vedic philosophy. These could be derived from purely technical, observational, and rational analyses of our everyday world. This analysis, however, has never been done in Western philosophy. Instead, Western philosophy went down the path of creating numerous dichotomies such as a physical conception of reality different from the conception of the observer, the use of binary logical inferences, the use of objectivity instead of contextuality and individuality along with universality, the separation of language from reality, and so forth.

Vedic philosophy seems so strange to the modern mind because it rejects dualisms and dichotomies. For example, to overcome the observer-observed dichotomy, the observed must be described in terms of our modes of understanding. Most people are just not able to accept this idea; they prefer describing the world in terms of instrument measurements. Similarly, to overcome the mind-body dichotomy, the body must be described in terms of the categories of the mind. Again, most people are not able to accept this idea. They believe that making the body an idea would make it imaginary. They just cannot conceive that ideas are real things, because of Western dualisms. Likewise, to overcome the language-reality dualism, the reality must be described as text, which can expand to elaborate and contract to summarize without losing its essence. Again, most people cannot accept this idea. They think that matter must be conserved because only the mind can expand or contract. They think that material change requires push-and-pull forces because they cannot imagine that matter can be altered simply by our speech–quite like we can ask another person to do something just by speech.

Vedic philosophy seems strange and inconceivable because people are accustomed to dualistic dichotomies despite all their problems. A workman can have bad tools, and yet, refuse to let go of them because he doesn’t want to learn new tools and seeks comfort in the familiar. Even as his tools are irrelevant to new problems, the workman says: My old tools have worked in the past, so they should work in the future. Rather than focusing on solving the problem, he mocks and questions the problem. The workman doesn’t realize that the work will find the workmen with better tools, and he will become worthless.

Modal Nature of Vedic Philosophy

Vedic philosophy begins from the idea that reality is modal. Nature is said to comprise three modes called sattva, rajas, and tamas. The soul is said to comprise three modes called sat, chit, and ānanda. Similarly, reality is described both as meaning and language, because that reality is knowable, and the knowledge is expressible for communication and transmission to other knowers.

Language is no longer a human creation; it must be natural because there is no other way for knowledge to exist. Likewise, the world must be described in terms of our modes of understanding because there is no other way to ensure that knowledge is possible. This knowledge must employ a neither-identity-nor-difference method of thinking because there is no other way to ensure that knowledge is possible. Thus, the mere possibility of knowing asserts numerous conditions on the nature of reality.

When someone hears the description of reality, their cognitive apparatus shifts from the mode of language to the mode of meaning and then to the mode of reality, because the cognitive apparatus is also modal. Thereby, the problems of Western philosophy—those of epistemology, ontology, linguistics, observation, rationality, sensation, conception, and judgment—never arise in Vedic philosophy. This gives Vedic philosophy a distinct flavor from Western philosophy because modality is assumed.

All the discussion then is about why there are three modes, how these three modes are complete accounts for all reality, how these modes combine and separate, and how innumerable modes are created by their combination. Everything seems strange in Vedic philosophy if we don’t know the reason why this modal conception is employed. That modal conception is assumed in Vedic philosophy, without an explanation. We can surmise that it wasn’t explained because it seemed natural to everyone.

Understanding Vedic Philosophy

This grasp of the modal nature of reality has disappeared at present. Instead, everything is influenced by dichotomies and contradictions. People have even given up asking fundamental questions: Is knowledge possible? If so, how? What will be the nature of reality that is also knowable and communicable?

Unless we return to these fundamental questions and lay out the problems of arbitrarily assuming knowledge and its communication without explaining how reality can be known and communicated, Vedic philosophy will remain strange. This, however, creates a new role for philosophy in the modern world, which is quite like Western philosophy in the sense that it explores the same dichotomies and contradictions, although this time to show why and how they are resolved by modal conceptions.

This kind of philosophy wasn’t actually practiced in the Vedic system, nor is it practiced in the West today. It is, however, a bridge between Western and Vedic systems of philosophy. That bridge must be built and crossed for everyone who understands Western philosophy but not Vedic philosophy yet.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Modal Conception of Reality," in Shabda Journal, April 24, 2022,