Pratyakṣa: Observation vs. Measurement

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Pratyakṣa vs. Empiricism Distinction

Pratyakṣa or observation is considered one of the types of pramāna, proof, or evidence in Vedic epistemology. We sometimes loosely call it empirical evidence. This nomenclature is, however, then confused with scientific empiricism, which is not observation but measurement. That can lead to the false idea that Indian epistemology supports measurements as a way to knowledge.

In this article, I will discuss the differences between observation and measurement and their implications for knowledge. We will see how observation is not measurement and why reality cannot be known through measurements although it can be known perfectly and completely through observations.

Measuring Weight Using a Weighing Scale

Let’s begin with the example of weighing an apple using a weighing scale. If we hold the apple in our hand, we feel some heaviness. Scientific empiricism says: This is a subjective experience. Let’s substitute the hand with a weighing scale, and replace the sense of heaviness with a pointer movement. By the pointer movement, we conclude that the pointer is the objectification of heaviness.

We often don’t realize that in the measurement process, we connect three distinct facts: (a) there is a value given by the pointer, (b) that value pertains to a property called weight, and (c) that weight is a property of an object called the apple. If we merely had a pointer movement without being associated with the property of weight, then the value would be meaningless. Likewise, if we associated the value with a property, but without the property being tied to an object, the property and value association will be meaningless.

A measurement is meaningful only if we tie together {object, property, value}. During observation, the object is an apple, the property is touch sensation, and the value is heavy or light. During measurement, the object is a particle, the property is weight, and the value is something in terms of grams or ounces.

Mediated vs. Unmediated Observation

Empiricists realized early on that a weighing scale measurement does not replace observation, because even when we are measuring, we are still observing the measurement. That observation still involves sense-perception qualities like color, shape, size, etc., because knowing that a scale produced a value pertaining to some property and object requires another observation.

Measurement is an observation mediated by an instrument, that tells us about the effects of one thing (e.g., an apple) on another thing (e.g., a weighing scale). If instead, we held the apple in our hand, then the observation is unmediated. It is thus incorrect to say that measurements are not observations. They are. Factually, everything we know is through observations, although they can be direct or indirect. We can call a measurement an indirect observation because it measures the effects of the apple not on our hands, but on a weighing scale.

A scale can be standardized but it is difficult to standardize hands. Standardization has some value—i.e., we can get away from personal ideas of what is heavy or not—but the process is not fundamentally different: There is an object, whose effect is measured on a standard or non-standard object.

Action in Contact vs. Action at a Distance

It turns out that while every measurement is an effect, every effect is not a measurement when we start distancing the cause from the effect. For example, when you put an apple on a weighing scale, you can construct the {object, property, value} tuple easily. However, it is not always easy to construct this tuple when the cause and effect are separated. For instance, if ocean waves rise during the night, you don’t immediately know that they are caused by the moon. You can measure the effect—i.e., the height of the tide—but you cannot immediately conclude that the tide is caused due to lunar attraction.

We conclude that the tides are caused due to the moon by (a) observations of other things around us and (b) by the method of elimination. Observations, which include looking up into the sky and seeing a moon, tell us that tides rise when the moon has risen. The method of elimination tells us that there aren’t any other significant factors that could explain the high tide. By a combination of the two, we explain the tide by the moon’s presence to create the {object, property, value} tuple. For instance, we could infer the moon’s weight using the height of the tide, under some assumed causal law (e.g., the law of gravitation) that predicts the effects based on the causes and some predictive law.

But let’s take this problem of cause and effect separation a step further. Suppose we receive a photon at a light detector. We can measure the energy of the photon, but how do we know which object emitted the photon? The photon could be coming from anywhere, so we have no idea of the object we are measuring.

In modern science, there are many possible causes of photon emission—a moving charged body emits a photon, a moving massive body could deflect a photon, a semi-transparent body could refract a photon, and some objects absorb and emit photons. We cannot know the true causes of the effect just by observing the effect. For instance, we cannot know the speed of the moving object, the mass of the object, its refractive index, or the causes of absorption and emission, simply from the photon. The effect underdetermines the cause.

The detection of the effect is not a measurement, because we cannot construct the {object, property, value} tuple pertaining to the cause from the effect. This is an outcome of action at a distance. Due to action at a distance, we cannot know the real cause (i.e., object) and why it causes an effect (i.e., properties and their associated laws). We can only measure values of effects: E.g., that a pointer moves, a detector clicks, or light blinks. Since we can measure the effect, but not the causes, therefore, {object, property, value} of the cause is replaced by the {object, property, value} of the effect, with no connection to its cause.

We could still insist that the effect is caused by a photon, which exerts an electromagnetic force. But by that yardstick, the tipping of weighing scales would also tell us only about the gravitational force exerted on the scale, and nothing about the apple. This is not how empiricism conceived measurements: They were supposed to tell us about the objects that exerted force. If we cannot know reality, which causes some effects, then it is not a measurement. It is still an effect, that cannot be explained by definitively attributing it to a cause.

When Measurements are Not Observations

In the early days of modern science, the difference between measurement and observation was obscured by proximity—action in contact. It became harder with action at a distance, such as in the case of ocean tides caused by the moon, but the problem was resolved by elimination: There were no obvious causes that could create the tide, so you had to attribute them to the moon.

The problem takes a nasty turn if we cannot apply the method of elimination to causality in atomic physics: We receive a photon, but we don’t know what caused its emission because there are potentially infinite sources. The effects can no longer be traced to the causes of those effects, due to action at a distance.

Quantum measurements are not akin to classical measurements—e.g., weighing an apple on a weighing scale—because we don’t know what causes the effect. Quantum measurements do not tell us about the nature of reality. They rather tell us about the state of the observer, which cannot be used to infer a reality.

Can We Solve the Measurement Problem?

The solution to the quantum measurement problem requires us to treat a photon like a message that contains information about (a) the identity of the sender, (b) why the sender sent that message to us rather than others, (c) the properties of the sender, (d) the time at which the message was sent, (e) the place from which the message was sent, and (f) the path on which the message reached its destination. This is also a necessity for any action at a distance.

Action in contact can be a particle, but action at a distance must be a message. If we model action at a distance with a particle, we can never know the cause of the effect. This is because the action in contact gives us both the cause and the effect, but action at a distance gives us the effect, but not the cause.

Complete causation requires answers to six questions: who, why, what, where, when, and how. Modern quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory of causation because it only tells us when and where the effect appears, but not who caused it, why it caused it, what the nature of the cause is, where the cause exists, when was the cause triggered, and how the cause reached the effect.

There have been attempts to fill the gaps in this incomplete causal picture by postulating forces, particles, and their properties in the Standard Model. At best, they fill gaps in what and how but we still cannot answer the questions of who, why, where, and when. There are also some discrepancies between theoretical predictions and observations (the latest one being the mass of the W-boson). But even if these problems did not exist, the theory would still be incomplete because it only answers two of the six questions.

The Meaning of the Word “Observation”

Knowledge can be divided into two aspects—reasoning and observation. The observation aspect of knowledge must provide the answers to when, where, who, and what. The reasoning aspect of knowledge must then answer the questions of why and how. But to ensure that the reasoning component is not mere speculation (i.e., that the rational answer is also real), we must be able to determine the why and how from the observation itself. Thereby, observation must be necessary and sufficient to tell us everything about reality.

This is true of many measurements too. For instance, if we weigh an apple in a store, we know: (a) this is an apple, (b) we are standing in a store, (c) at some well-known time, (d) for the purposes of buying an apple which the store intends to sell, (e) weighing the apple is the means to purchasing the apple, (f) by this process, the apple will be sold to us. Basically, we are able to answer the six questions—what, where, when, why, how, and who—successively.

But if we put a distance between cause and effect, and we cannot employ the method of elimination, we lose the capacity to answer these questions. The effect we measure is neither observation nor measurement. It is just an effect.

It is therefore misleading to call such a measurement an observation. An observation includes answers to six questions, which include the complete understanding of the cause. A measurement lets us construct a {object, property, value} tuple, without the ability to explain why and how it produces an effect (that is provided through a theory). An effect, that cannot be traced back to its causes, is not even a measurement, let alone an observation.

The Meaning of the Word “Pratyakṣa”

The term pratyakṣa comprises two parts—prati (each) and akṣa (vision). It is often interpreted as seeing the differences between things or seeing multiple things. But it also means seeing each of the six answers to the questions of what, when, where, why, how, and who, by observation. If we don’t see the answers to all the six questions, then pratyakṣa is incomplete. If we make mistakes in seeing one or more of these six answers, then pratyakṣa is flawed.

Since pratyakṣa can be incomplete or flawed, therefore, it is complemented by inference. The problem with inference is that it can be based on false axioms. A logically correct deduction that began from false axioms doesn’t produce a correct answer. To fix that problem, we can accept the axioms given by a reliable authority, and use them for reasoning to get correct conclusions. However, there is still a problem: We might not understand what the authority says, or interpret it incorrectly, thereby misunderstanding the axioms.

Thus, none of the methods are fool-proof, and therefore epistemology places emphasis on purifying the consciousness. That purification makes each method perfect. For instance, if consciousness is pure, then pratyakṣa is complete and perfect because we can get correct answers to the six questions from observation. If consciousness is pure, then we can correctly understand the axioms given by the authority, to be used for reasoning, perfectly. Finally, we can validate the axioms by observation or pratyakṣa. Thus, observations validate axioms, axioms are used by reason, and perfectly supported by the testimony of the authority, if and only if the consciousness is pure.

Pratyakṣa is the observation of pure consciousness. It is complete because we can see all the six answers in the observation. It can be complemented by reasoning and authoritative testimony if we don’t make the mistake of using false axioms or misunderstanding the axioms given by some authority.

Pratyakṣa Is Not Scientific Empiricism

Scientific empiricism is not observation. It started with a measurement that gives us facts about the world. But empiricists realized that we cannot explain and predict those facts causally without a theory. The theory required assumptions, and the same data can be explained and/or predicted by many assumptions. This problem was obscured by the fact that we could see proximity between cause and effect, and when there was action at a distance, we could limit the cause by easily accessible methods of elimination.

As science progressed, the difference between observation and measurement has increased continuously, reaching a point where it is impossible to construct a picture of reality from measurements that explain the measurements.

Therefore, it is disingenuous for scientists to insist that they rely on “reason” and “observation” in science. They don’t. They rely on “speculation” and “measurement”. They need speculation because measurements don’t give them complete information about reality. And speculation can never be confirmed by measurement because multiple speculations explain the same data equally well. Speculation and measurement must therefore be contrasted to observation as the process that provides the answer to each of the six questions.

Science, however, has pursued material ideologies under which it is impossible to derive the answers to the six questions from observations. For example, when we observe a photon, we could treat it as a message that tells us: (a) the source of the photon, (b) why it was sent to us, (c) when it was sent, (d) where it was sent from, (e) the path over which it arrived, and (f) the content of the message which then produces an effect. Science, however, treats the photon as a packet of energy, which makes it impossible to answer any of the six questions.

Pratyakṣa and Human Observation

Modern science has also produced a false caricature of human observation by equating human observation to instrument measurements, trying to force-fit observation into a paradigm of measurement. For instance, let’s try to model our sense perception after a photon detection: We cannot know where the photon came from, so there is no way to project that detection backward to construct a picture of the external world. We just have a detection but no realism of where, when, why, how, and what it was caused by. Hence, there is no ability to give a place to the cause, a time when it causes an effect, the reason that it specifically affects us, and how that cause becomes an effect.

The problems of quantum measurement make it impossible to explain how we construct a picture of reality via sense perception, and why that constructed reality works consistently and pervasively. Construction of reality requires answering what, how, when, where, why, and who caused the perception.

The solution to the problem is also easy: We can model a measurement as an observation. That means seeking answers to six questions from a photon. When the photon interacts with our senses, it creates a picture of the world because that photon has answers to those six questions. The senses—e.g., the eyes—must be studied as extracting the answers to six questions from a photon.

This is an approach to studying the quantum by assuming that light tells us about the world, so when it enters our senses, it must give us its source, the time it was sent, the place it was sent from, why it was sent to us and not others, and how it came to us. All these are meta-information about the source. The information is the properties of the source it came from. We need answers to these six questions to reconstruct a picture of reality from the received photon.

How Modern Physics Misleads People

Modern physics has divorced itself from all these fundamental questions. It has stopped asking how measurements tell us about the world. It is focused on formulating equations to predict measurements, speculatively constructing a reality not derived from the observation, and in the case of atomic physics, colliding particles in particle accelerators to collect more data.

This is futility in the flesh because collecting more data can help only if we know how to process that data into a picture of reality. If we don’t have a theory in which a photon carries six kinds of information, and we don’t have a measurement process that can extract those six kinds of information from the photon, then we are wasting time collecting data. We should instead focus on refining the theory and redefining measurement in a way that can solve the fundamental issues that make it impossible to know the cause of the effect.

But most physicists are not interested in fundamental questions. They proclaim: Philosophy is dead or that it has no role in science because they know neither the goals of philosophy nor of science. They have lost touch with reality. They are living in their make-believe bubble of speculations, mathematical equations, and measurements that are never going to answer the basic question: How can we know reality by observation? And they expand this make-believe world at the expense of other people who pay for their futile endeavors.

The people who pay for such endeavors are even more ignorant: They think that science is going to tell them about reality. Perpetuating this ignorance through propaganda about progress is the only way that science can continue wasting other people’s money on futile personal entertainment. I don’t see any hope for such endeavors. I just hope that people will see the futility of their hopes.

Returning to Fundamental Questions

If there is any hope, it lies in going back to the philosophical questions and reconstructing empiricism in a way that tells us how we know the world through observation, applying the requirements of knowing reality back to reality, and checking if those requirements are fulfilled by reality.

In short, we begin with one assumption: We can know the world. Then frame the requirements of knowing in terms of the six questions that must be answered, formulate theories that give plausible answers to these six questions, and test if the answers are correct. Don’t abandon the questions if you cannot find the answers and never consider a theory true unless it answers all the six questions. The success of science lies in proving its starting assumption that we can know the world. This is a scientifically and philosophically sound approach to the study of nature. Everything else is frivolous dishonest nonsense.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Pratyakṣa: Observation vs. Measurement," in Shabda Journal, June 30, 2022,