What does Sankhya Mean for Science?

March 30, 2021 Authored by: Ashish Dalela

Sankhya espouses a view of matter in which the properties of observers are represented or reflected into matter. Current science is based upon one such aspect of the observer – the ability to perceive properties. The idea of physical properties in science is based upon a refinement of the idea of sensed properties such as taste, touch, smell, sound, color, form, etc., and every physical property must be tied to perceptual properties, for science to be empirical. 

Physical properties in Sankhya are objective representations of the sensations. However, the abilities of the observers do not end with perceptual properties. Beyond these properties are the sensations, meanings in the mind, judgements of true or false in the intelligence, intentions in the ego, and morality in the moral sense. 

In Sankhya, the external world is the objective representation of qualities (e.g. Yellow and Red). These qualities are themselves refinements of properties such as color, which are called tanmatra. The senses perceive the tanmatra (e.g. color and taste), the mind perceives meanings (e.g., that the red thing is a rose), the intelligence judges these meanings (e.g., does this red rose denote love, based on culture?), the ego perceives intentions (e.g., a person who gives me a red rose is interested in a relationship) and moral sense perceives moral values (e.g., loving is a morally good thing). 

Each of these perception faculties is also capable of creating the perceived objects. For instance, the senses can create sensations (e.g., during dreams), the mind can create new meanings (finding a new interpretation of the sensations within an object, by seeing new relationship), the intelligence can create new judgements (e.g. by bringing new justifications or contradictions, that confirms or refute the truth of a proposition), the ego can create intentions (e.g., a specific way of using a particular product like a knife can be used to cut, scrape, pierce, etc.) and the moral sense can create new types of morals (e.g., that a specific use of an object constitutes a morally right action). 

The sensual faculties in the observer are therefore both creators and consumers of meanings. Each such perceived type of meaning can be represented in matter, and through such representation the perceived meanings can be attributed back to reality. The representation of these meanings creates new properties in matter, which could potentially be described by newer scientific theories. 

Like current science postulates physical properties corresponding to sensations which are perceived by the senses (eyes, nose, ear, skin and tongue), the Vedic tiered view of the observer indicates that there are additional properties in matter that correspond to the perceptive capabilities in the mind, intelligence, ego and moral sense. As modern science was developed by objectivizing the sensations, future sciences can be developed based on mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense. Specifically, the science solely based on sensations is incomplete because the observer has additional properties that are reflected within matter. 

However, before this broader approach to science can be understood, there is one fundamental issue whose solution is essential before we can talk of perceiving matter though mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense. The most basic problem in science is that it does not even accept that properties experienced by the senses are represented in matter. 

In science, matter is described in relation to material objects, not in relation to the observer’s senses, because science hypothesizes that the properties in objects are different from how we perceive these objects. For instance, science postulates that matter has mass and change, which appear to us as color and taste; therefore, mass and charge are real properties of matter, but color and taste are not. Of course, science maps the objective world to our world of experience through experiments. But this mapping of material object properties to experience pertains to a very small subset of experience – pointer movements or detector clicks – and through this mapping, science tries to prove that matter is mass and charge, and not color and taste. How mass and charge are experienced as color and taste however requires another explanation, which now becomes a problem for the neurologist. 

Despite great successes in describing physical states in material objects, there is still no theory that explains how physical states lead to experiences in the observers. 

A new interdisciplinary field of study – called cognitive science or consciousness studies – has recently emerged, which aims to bring together a wide array of scientific disciplines to explain how physical states lead to experience. In other words, whilst objects have so far been successfully described in relation to other objects, how these objects create experience must be explained in terms of physical theories.

This approach to the study of the mind carries forward a very fundamental distinction between primary properties (like length, mass and charge) and secondary properties (like color, taste and smell) which was used by early empiricists to give a firm philosophical grounding to science. 

The distinction arose because of the recognition that what we experience may not be reality (that we might be hallucinating) so there must be a difference between reality and experience. Empiricists now chose to describe matter in relation to other material objects, using primary rather than secondary properties. This approach to science took away the ability to say that sometimes our experiences do correspond to material objects and what we experience may in fact be about those objects. By insisting that length, mass and change are real, but color, taste and smell are not, every claim that applies our knowledge gained through senses back to material objects becomes false. 

For instance, we cannot say that roses are red, the sunset is orange or apples are sweet. Rather, we must say that all matter is comprised of atoms and molecules, that have mass and charge, but they appear to us as color, taste or smell. The notion that roses are in fact red is today derided as naïve realism.

Once you decide that matter does not have color and taste, all successive notions of reality based upon the reality of sensations must also be discarded. For instance, imagine that someone in distresses is waving a white flag. There are various ways in which this simple fact is described in ordinary language, all of which are falsified if sensations are not real.

For instance, if the property of color is unreal this implies that the concept of white – which is a color – must also be unreal. If the concept of white is not real, then the idea that white denotes peace must also be unreal. The idea that there are real things called white flags which denote peace must also be unreal because the flag is only a combination of sensations and concepts (the sensation of a cloth fluttering in the air and the concept of peace).

Someone’s intentions – e.g., that they want peace by waving a white flag – must be unreal because the concept of peace is already unreal. The idea that desire for peace is a morally good intention also becomes false because desiring itself is an illusion. 

The entire everyday linguistic edifice collapses, simply because we cannot assert that color and taste are real. How can science explain experience if everything in experience is false? Science must conclude that all experience is an epiphenomenon of physical interactions. That we imagine we know the world as smell and taste but there is no such thing as smell and taste; that we imagine that we have choices and emotions, but these are simply not real. The task of explaining experience in terms of physical interactions in science must conclude that all experience is ultimately an illusion.

To avoid this conclusion, science needs a new view of matter. In this view, it should be possible to say that-at least sometimes-when I experience red, the experience is telling me something about the nature of matter. That my experiences of sight, taste, sound, touch and smell can, in principle, be accurate descriptions of nature. 

In other words, that nature can in principle be described in terms of smells, tastes and sights, rather than just in terms of mass, energy or charge. This in turn opens science to may levels of descriptions – sensual properties such as color, form, flavor, and odor, ordinary meanings such as peace and love, everyday concepts such as table, chair, car and house, intents such as how an observer interprets the world, and morals such as whether these interpretations are right or wrong. There can now be sciences that observe matter not just through senses, but also through mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense. 

If the observations of the senses produce illusions, then the experiences of mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense will also be illusions. But if the senses are sources of truth about material objects then other experiences could also be potentially real. The need for epistemology-the method by which we separate knowledge from illusions – still exists because even the mind or intelligence can come under illusion. However, illusion do not preclude the possibility that the perceptions of the senses or the mind are-at least sometimes – true and that nature can and should be always described in the language of perceptions. If the apple is green instead of red, we will still be using the language of perceptions, although a different part of the perceptual language (green Vs. red). If, however, perceptions are always false then we must only describe matter in relation to other objects and not to the observers. 

This view of the observers, described within Sankhya, is different than the idea of the observer widely used in current science. In science, the observer’s consciousness is thephenomena waiting to be explained in terms of physical or chemical properties in matter. In Sankhya, matter is the phenomenon waiting to be understood in terms of the observer’s faculties. Everything that the observer experiences can be potentially real, and the observer’s experiences reflect his conscious abilities into matter. The study of senses, mind, intelligence, ego and moral sense is therefore the study of different properties that can exist in matter and matter can potentially be described just as the observer experience it. 

To see the relevance of this idea to science, think of how we describe everyday behaviors – such as a person’s laughter – using concepts about their mental states. When we see someone laughing, we generally conclude that they are happy. We don’t say that they just appear to be happy, while there is no such thing called happiness. Of course, the person may not truly be happy, and they may be feigning a happy look. 

But, potentially, there is room for allowing the fact that when a person looks happy, they are in fact happy. In concluding that someone is happy, we rely on knowledge about their bodily states, not first-hand acquaintance with their personal experience of happiness. For us to know about their mental state of happiness, signs of happiness must be physically present in the body, and accessible through observation. But we explain the bodily signs of happiness by a theory of the mind.

Everyday explanations of behavior use a theory about the mind- namely that people can be happy or sad, angry or motivated. This is important for science because it tells us that material phenomena can also be explained based on ideas about the mind. It does not reduce the experience of happiness to matter, although it makes happiness a useful conceptin terms of which to explain observations scientifically. If the concept is found useful in making predictions about a person’s behavior, then it is scientifically real. Such a successful theory would reinstate the idea that happiness is real. 

Developments in neuroscience and biology have already shown that observer reports of mental experiences have empirically observable counterparts. Many scientists therefore conclude that the mind is reducible to matter, without in fact carrying out that reduction. It is more likely that the mind is distinct from the body, although states of mind are somehow represented in the body and can be used to explain the body. 

The main problem in allowing this view today is that the mind and the body are described using two different languages. The language of science and the language of experience have gone so far apart that this in turn has created the mind-body divide.If matter were described using the same words as experience, the mind-body interaction problem would not arise. Mind and body would now be two different models of the same language. This is already seen in everyday experiences where happiness is not identical with the bodily state but the same word – happiness – applies to both the mental experience and the physical state. An explanation of the bodily state now requires a theory of the mind. This theory of the mind is a useful view of the mind, but it is also a valuable scientific theory in terms of which phenomena in matter can be explained. 

This is a radical conception about the mind and its relevance to science – not as a study of the mind, but as a study of matter itself. Everyday intuitions and scientific experiments both tell us that experiences have physical counterparts. Everything an observer experiences can be known by others through observation, although the experience and reality are different. In Sankhya, the observer has many facets which are called properties, senses, mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense. Senses perceive sight, taste, smell, sound and touch, and because knowledge from senses is potentially real, yellowness, sweetness, hardness, roughness, etc. are potentially real properties in matter. Similarly, because the mind experiences meanings which are conceptual representations of abstract ideas, these meanings must be real. Since the intelligence relates these meanings to other meanings to decide if they are true or false, these judgements can also be real. 

Since the ego creates intentions about the world, potentially intentionality is also real. Since the moral sense experiences morals and values, potentially morals and values are also real. 

Note that I’m not claiming that sensations, meanings, judgements, intentions and morals should be reduced to properties of material objects. I’m only claiming that it is possible to use the same language to describe experience and objects. This means that – (a) experiences are true, and (b) matter has properties that are known by experience. Concepts about matter can thus be drawn from how the observer perceives this matter. If senses, mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense generate different kinds of experiences, and these experiences can potentially be true, then there are additional properties in matter that can be useful in explaining observations. The predictive successes of theories that incorporate such new properties will make these properties real in a scientific sense. 

In Sankhya, consciousness and matter are distinct types of entities, but they can hold the same information. Information exists in consciousness as experience and it exists in matter as objectified symbol-tokens of that conscious state. When consciousness knows material objects, it possesses information that earlier existed in matter. 

When consciousness creates material objects then matter possesses information that earlier existed in consciousness. The interaction between consciousness and matter is mediated by information which potentially straddles both subjective and objective worlds. A symbol can be experienced as meaning and it can objectified as a token. For instance, the word ‘tree’ is a physical token with some shape and phonetic sound. But this token also represents the concept of a tree. The experience of the concept is different from the physical properties of the token itself, but the token denotes the concept. Objects can therefore be described in terms of meanings, although objects are not the experience of meanings. Experiences of different kinds of meanings are produced when matter is perceived by senses, mind, intelligence, ego and the moral sense. Accordingly, the same material reality can be described in new ways, each time treating it as a token of some kind of meaning or sensation. This leads to a new approach to science, and consequently to new theories about matter. 

[Source: Ashish Dalela, Sankhya and Science , p. 9-16]

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