I generally refrain from commenting on theological topics, and restrict myself to issues in science, but in this post I will make an exception. The issue of interest is whether a soul “falls down” into matter. There is often confusion around this topic, which, in my view, rests upon a misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge about our past. There are three broad theological views on this issue:
(a) the soul is an individual; he falls down into matter and can get out of it;
(b) the soul is an individual but has always been in matter, although he can get out of the material laws;
(c) the individuality of the soul is an illusion; the creation of individuality is itself the falldown, although there is a universal transcendent observer.
Quite separately, there is the materialist position which denies both individual and universal transcendent observers. These views about the soul’s existence are tied to the views about matter, space, and time, and these ideas are not just ideological commitments that can only be accepted on faith, but can also be discussed scientifically.
Table of Contents
- The Problem of Knowing the Past
- History is Created and Destroyed
- Time vs. History
- Nitya-Baddha (The Eternally Bound Soul)
- The Argument from Authority
- The Problem of Spiritual Choice
- Choices and Buridan’s Ass
- Existence, Choices and Personality
- The Rise of Materialism
- Is Materialism Consistent and Complete?
- The Scientific Component of the View
- In Conclusion
The Problem of Knowing the Past
If the falldown occurred, it must have been in the past, and to know whether it occurred we must know when it occurred. But how do we know what happened in the past? In Indian philosophy, living beings carry their past in their unconscious, which then produces the present under different times, places, and circumstances. The past exists materially in the present as history and carries the imprints of the prior time, place, and circumstance when it was created. When a similar kind of time, place, or circumstance recurs, these prior impressions are automatically excited much like a vibrating string can excite another string if they both have the same kinds of frequencies. The string that was not previously vibrating also exists, but its existence is unknown unless it is excited, and similarly the history exists as the “unconscious” and manifests our personality and behaviors only when subjected to different times, places, and circumstances.
This history is however not fixed. As we undergo new experiences, new impressions are created and the old ones are destroyed. This is not to say that the past is changed; it only means that the knowledge of the past—which materially exists as the history of the individual through impressions—is created and destroyed. In principle, we can only know the past through the materially existing history, because we cannot actually go into the past. We have access to the past through its historical imprint, but if the imprint has been destroyed then we have no way of knowing what happened in the past (unless, of course, the past resides as an impression in someone else’s memory).
History is Created and Destroyed
The problem now is that the history is continually created and destroyed. If you had access to all your history (the unconscious) you could potentially go back in time until the earliest possible historical record. However, there is no guarantee that this historical record is actually the beginning of time for you. It is quite possible that you previously had even older historical records, although they have now been destroyed. Therefore, even if your earliest historical record has a date in the past, this date doesn’t necessarily indicate the time when you entered the material experience.
The very fact that history can be created and destroyed entails that we have no way of knowing the past beyond the oldest historical record. If you fell into the material experience only 5 minutes ago, and your history is therefore only 5 minutes old, you still cannot assert that you just fell 5 minutes ago, because you have no way of knowing that you might have fell long before and all the prior historical records have been erased.
There is, hence, no way of knowing when the material experience started because the historical record of that experience may itself have been destroyed. Since we also cannot know if it were destroyed, we can never be sure that it wasn’t. Your historical records of the past are a material entity and not time itself.
Time vs. History
Many people don’t understand the distinction between history and time. Time is eternal whereas history is created and destroyed. We have no access to time, but we can know about time through history. If things were not changing in this world, we could not know if time were passing. We could not measure time and we certainly could not talk about past, present, and future. The measurement of time therefore depends upon change, and change implies that things that existed in the past may not exist right now. History is also changing, and therefore our knowledge of the past changes, although the past itself does not. While the past is fixed, our knowledge of it is variable.
This point is important because causal effects depend on the historical imprint and not just on the past events. If the history has been destroyed, all its effects are also gone. The past which does not exist in the present (as a material entity) also has no effect on present or future. This is the reason that we can talk about a person becoming free of the natural laws—the entire sequence of events in the past doesn’t matter; what matters is the history of events that currently exists on record. In short, history is the past that exists in the present, and that history is causally efficacious. Everything else in the past is irrelevant.
Nitya-Baddha (The Eternally Bound Soul)
Indian philosophy speaks about the nitya-baddha or the eternally bound soul. The contentious issue regarding the eternally bound soul is whether the eternity of bondage concerns time or history. That is, are we claiming that the soul is eternally in the material experience as far as time is concerned, or is the soul eternally in matter as far his own knowledge about his own past is concerned? The problem in treating the eternity as time rather than as history is that we have no way of knowing when we fell (from the knowledge of the past) although we can know when we did not fall. For instance, if your earliest historical record goes back to time T1 in the past, you can know that you did not fall any time after T1. However, you cannot assert anything about any time prior to T1: you cannot know if the earliest historical record is also the first material experience.
Therefore, we cannot make any claims about anything that is temporally prior to T1. That we are eternally in material experience can neither be asserted nor denied. It is simply a metaphysical claim. The claim that we cannot know about the time of falldown, on the other hand, can be inferred from the fact that history is changing—i.e. that history is created and destroyed. The living being’s unconscious is like a slate on which things can be written but that writing is destroyed after its effect has been realized. This model of causality needs the view that all material experiences create an impression that exists temporarily until it has been converted into an effect. The effect in turn creates new experiences. The living being therefore undergoes a cycle of cause and effect, the origin of which cannot be traced back in time because once the prior impression has been converted into an experience, one only has the memory of the new experience while the memory of the prior experience has been destroyed.
If this causal model of experience were to be true, whether or not the soul is eternally in matter would be a scientific question in the sense that eternity as time would be unverifiable although eternity as history would be a valid theoretical and empirical construct. The temporal claim can never be theoretically or empirically asserted. However, the historical claim can be both theoretically and empirically asserted. For instance, we all infer that we had a childhood although we remember nothing about it; there are even periods of time when we draw a blank although we have vivid memories of times before and after that period. In these cases, the history has been destroyed, although the events did previously occur in time. The past that does not exist in the present as history cannot have a causal effect on the present or the future. Therefore, if one has become completely free of the past influences, he or she is also free of the laws of nature. This freedom is not violation of the nature’s laws. It is just that the laws depend on the material history to produce an effect, and that material history no longer exists.
The Argument from Authority
Some critics will now argue that the eternity of the falldown is based on statements from authorities—scriptures, teachers, advanced spiritualists, etc. I will not dive into this claim as refuting it would require quoting from these sources. I will, however, make a simple point: all knowledge gained from authority also has to be verified—theoretically and empirically. If we simply accept authority without verifying that claim, it becomes dogmatic. In an earlier post, I justified the knowledge from authority as the only real way of knowing the truth. However, I also noted that the knowledge from authority concerns the discovery of truth and not its verification. If knowledge has to be discovered rationally or empirically, then knowledge can never be complete. However, if we substitute that discovery with authority, the true knowledge can easily be verified or denied.
The only way in which we can discriminate knowledge from dogmatism is if one is verifiable and the other is not. The argument from authority therefore works only when the claims can be verified. In this case, the argument from eternity can never be verified. We are free to accept it dogmatically, but if that view is extended to every other form of knowing, the entire epistemological enterprise will come crashing down.
The point simply is that the eternity argument can be understood in two ways—i.e. pertaining to time or to history. Only the latter can be theoretically and empirically asserted. The former must remain a metaphysical assumption and dogmatic belief.
The Problem of Spiritual Choice
Given the above, we can conclude that it is reasonable to suppose that the soul fell into matter at some time, although that time can never be known—if that knowledge is derived from the material historical imprint in our conscious or unconscious. If, however, we did fall, then there must be a time in which we had not yet fallen. Do we and can we have remembrance of that time? Note that there is an important difference between the time at which a soul falls, and the time before that fall. The difference is that after a fall, the remembrance must be stored in a material historical record. However, prior to that fall, matter itself did not exist, and therefore neither the material history. The memory of the past therefore isn’t the same for the time since the fall and the time before the fall.
Indian philosophy claims that each soul has innate memory of the time before the fall although that memory has been “covered” by subsequent experiences. This view is justified based on a distinction between two kinds of memories: the material unconscious is called pasyanti and the non-material impressions prior to that are called para. The key point is that even while existing in matter, each soul still has an innate memory of the past spiritual existence, even though that memory is now covered by the subsequent material memories. The spiritual nature of the living being therefore doesn’t have to be discovered; it only has to be remembered. There is a subtle but important difference between discovery and rememberance: discovery is external and remembrance is innate.
The proponent of eternal falldown, must—to be completely consistent—also change the definition of spiritual realization from remembrance to discovery. The knowledge about the self must now be imparted to a person, rather than remembered. E.g., if you have no innate knowledge of what you were in the past, then you have to be told about your spiritual position. Since you have no innate knowledge, you also cannot like or dislike a particular kind of position and role; you will have no preference for anything. And if you have no preference, essentially you cannot also desire or choose a position out of any innate capacity. You must simply accept whatever position is offered.
In effect, since you have no prior innate knowledge or preference for a spiritual nature, when that nature is imparted externally (rather than remembered) it cannot be a subject of free will, since every choice can work only in conjunction with a personality that prefers some things over others. The eternal falldown therefore creates a problem not only in explaining how we claim what we cannot theoretically and empirically know, but also serious issues in making choices in the future. Ultimately, it results in a denial of free will because we have no preference to choose, and therefore we cannot choose.
Choices and Buridan’s Ass
This problem is called the problem of Buridan’s Ass after the French philosopher Jean Buridan. The problem arises for an ass who is both thirsty and hungry and has a pile of hay and a pot of water lying before him, but cannot decide whether to eat or drink first and therefore dies of starvation and thirst. The point is that free will or choice alone becomes inadequate unless there is a personality that drives the choice in a particular direction. The ability to choose is not the same as making a particular kind of choice. In this case, the ass may be both thirsty and hungry but it must choose to drink or eat first. Since both options are equally possible, there must be some way this decision can be made. The preference for the choice must therefore come from something beyond choice itself.
In the case of eternal falldown, you have no innate personality to even make a preferred choice after you decide to get out of material experience. You are in effect like Buridan’s Ass who can choose one out of the many possible options, but cannot decide which one to choose. If you cannot make a preferred choice, a few things are possible: (a) someone else must make a choice for you, (b) you make a random choice—for which you could use a coin toss—which in turn is a decision made by something (rather than someone), and (c) you never make a choice, and therefore never enter the spiritual experience.
Now, we have an even more profound problem: if we cannot make choices, we have many possible alternatives that result from the inability to make choices, which must now be chosen! The only option consistent with the claim that we have no preferences (because we have no past beyond the material experience) is that we do nothing, which in effect results in death by starvation from the inability to choose, like the Buridan’s Ass.
The key point is that the premise that we are eternally in material experience in the past creates a further problem of how we get out of that experience in the future. The position of eternal material past is inconsistent with the idea that the future material experience is not eternal. The second position (of the three theological positions stated at the beginning — “the soul is an individual but has always been in matter, although he can get out of the material laws”) is therefore inherently inconsistent. It posits an asymmetry between the past and the future—the material past is eternal but the future is not—and this asymmetry rests upon the soul making a choice without having a personality. Only when the choice has been made, a personality must develop, and this creates the chicken-and-egg problem because choices cannot be made unless a personality already exists.
Existence, Choices and Personality
Indian philosophy describes that the soul has three properties—sat (consciousness), chit (cognition), and personality (ananda). The term ananda literally means pleasure which dictates what we like, and therefore what we enjoy. Each of us must have a form of pleasure innate in us for us to be able to choose; the choices are made essentially to seek pleasure. If we don’t have a personal form, we cannot choose even though we might have the ability to make choices. Without a personality, choices can never be manifest.
The soul is said to exist, be capable of choices, and have a personality to choose. If you have a personality then you must also be an individual a priori. Of course, you may decide not to choose—which is also a choice—but to make any choice there must be a personality. All consciousness is in essence a choice—we focus our attention on some things while not on others. If there is no personality, then choices cannot be made, and if choices cannot be made there cannot be consciousness. The soul can still exist without individuality and experience—and this is in essence the claim of the third position described at the beginning where the soul’s individuality is itself termed an illusion. What proponents of this view don’t recognize is that in denying individuality they are denying choices and thereby consciousness itself. Once you remove personality and choice, you are left with an existence which is indistinguishable from that of material objects.
Note that material objects also exist and the key difference between matter and an observer is that the observers can choose and enjoy. If we remove choice and pleasure from an observer, then the observer is effectively like a material object—it only has existence which a material object also has. Of course, an observer has the ability for choice and pleasure, so even in the state where he chooses to not exercises choices and experience pleasure, the observer is distinct from material objects, which cannot in principle choose and enjoy. Nevertheless, when the observer renounces choices and pleasure, his distinction from material objects is unmanifest.
The impersonalist claims that the state without choice and pleasure is the real state of the observer. The undifferentiated existence is supposed to become divided and differentiated in the material universe, and if the original source is itself undifferentiated then how the differentiated world comes about itself becomes unexplainable. By discarding the a priori personality of the soul, therefore, the impersonalist loses the ability to explain why the material world even exists as a differentiated realm of objects and people.
I have previously explored this issue in greater detail in the essay Impersonalism, Voidism and Science in the book Is the Apple Really Red? The key point of that essay is that adopting an impersonal or voidistic position leads to the collapse of science because we cannot explain how differentiation arises from the undifferentiated.
The Rise of Materialism
Materialism stems from the denial of falldown, which in turn stems from positing either an asymmetry in time, or an undifferentiated reality. If you posit an asymmetry in time (the the soul is forever in matter in the past, but can get out of in the future), but do not accept that there is an original personality, then you can never explain getting out either. You are now permanently in matter, and therefore the supposition that there is a transcendent personality itself is unnecessary. Similarly, if you suppose that personality is an illusion, then consciousness must also be an illusion (since without personality choices cannot be made, and without choices there cannot be consciousness), and therefore we are left with an undifferentiated, unconscious reality. That reality can also be called matter.
Once you accept that the soul is eternally in matter, you may also assert that the individual is actually a product of matter. Similarly, if you accept that the soul has no individuality outside of matter, then its existence apart from matter itself becomes questionable. We can engage in philosophical hairsplitting about how the soul and matter are different, but if the soul did not fall into matter, then the process by which it gets out is itself unclear. If you can never get out, then what’s the point of talking about morality, judgement, and afterlife? Similarly, if the reality before the material experience is undifferentiated, then the experience of differentiation cannot be explained, which means that how the material world is created cannot be explained. These two positions undermine the fundamental cornerstones underlying the quest for religion. The first position is inconsistent while the second one is incomplete. They would eventually be rejected in favor of materialism, at least if materialism turned out to be a consistent and complete position.
Is Materialism Consistent and Complete?
I have— in several previous posts on this blog— described why current materialism is either an inconsistent or an incomplete position. There are currently several theories of matter which describe different facets of the material experience incompletely. These theories don’t work for all experiences, although they may work partially for a given experience. However, when we try to enhance these incomplete theories, they become inconsistent—either logically or empirically. That is, either they will predict things that will contradict experience or the theory itself would contradict its own predictions.
I have also described an alternative materialism in which matter is essentially information which begins in abstract ideas and through successive stages of refinement becomes contingent material objects; these objects are ideas too—they are just more detailed. I have also shown why the alternative materialism is both consistent and complete, and how it resolves the underlying paradoxes of incompleteness in current science.
This alternative materialism traces the origin of material objects first to senses, then to the mind, then to the intellect, then to the ego, then to morality, and so forth, all the way into the individual and then a universal observer’s consciousness. This consciousness—as already described earlier—is essentially choices governed by a personality. All information therefore is ultimately choices of the universal or individual observers. As already seen above, to make choices, there must a priori be a personality. The individual and universal observers must therefore have a personality to even create a material universe.
The personal nature of the soul follows from the problems of incompleteness in science: if these problems have to be solved, there must be a clear role for information in nature; if information is real then we need to ask about the source of that information in the choices of an observer; if the choices of the observer are real then the observer must be a person because without personality choices can never be made. These facts render impersonalism, materialism and eternal falldown theories untenable, and while the falldown is a theological problem thus far, its solution depends on a far more profound understanding of material nature than which generally exists today.
The Scientific Component of the View
There are several components of this profound understanding of material nature, which I have briefly alluded to in the above paragraphs, and I will try to summarize them again so that its differences with current scientific views become apparent. These components also represent areas of new scientific development—both theoretical and empirical.
- All causality in modern science depends on the current state of matter and not the past states. In Indian philosophy, causality indeed depends on the current states, although these states may be impressions, history, or memory of the past. In current science, matter has no memory because all material states are non-referential: they can only point to themselves. If matter could have referential states, then it could also point to events in the past. In such a scenario, it would be possible to speak about how the past exists in the present referentially. These references can be created and destroyed, quite like any other material objects, and therefore the history of the past is not permanent, even though the past itself is fixed.
- The above causal model depends upon the ability in matter to hold knowledge or references about other things. This knowledge can go backwards and forwards in time; it can also point to different objects in space at the present moment; finally, it can also point to other objects in space in the past or in the future. To reference something, matter must have conceptual properties—we describe other things using concepts, and then point to those things using references. References therefore work only when a prior conceptual role of matter has been inducted.
- The conceptual nature of matter entails that ideas are not just in the mind, but also in material things. This follows from the inability to reduce ideas to things—consistently and completely. It also leads to problems of mind-body interaction. If both mind and matter are ideas, there is no interaction problem. Furthermore, if matter is contingent ideas derived from a mind which is abstract ideas, there is no reduction problem (followed by inconsistency or incompleteness) either. Ordinary material objects and scientific objects (such as electrons and photons) therefore have to be treated conceptually and not physically—they have to be seen as representing ideas, rather than just possessing physical properties.
- The revision to our notions of matter, in turn changes our notions about space and time. If some material objects are abstract while others are contingent, and all these objects are in space and time then space and time locations themselves must be identified as being abstract and contingent. Now, space and time are not linear and flat but must be described hierarchically like postal addresses or clock times. Hierarchical space is closed and hierarchical time is cyclic. The closed and cyclic nature of space and time itself now represents a vibration. However, this vibration should not be described in terms of frequency, phase and amplitude, but rather as the representation of meanings, quite like ordinary speech has physical properties but its real property is that it denotes and expresses meanings.
- Once we know that matter holds meanings, we can ask ourselves: are these meanings true or false? The existence of the meaning does not entail its truth, and meanings drive a wedge between existence and truth. The question of truth equates to the question of existence in physical theories, but the existence of meanings does not itself entail whether those meanings are true or false. If meanings are objective, then their truth status must also have a causal effect. It is now possible to speak about the moral differences between true and false, based upon a material theory of nature that utilizes meanings for causality. The moral consequences don’t act immediately and their causal effects therefore require the existence of the past in the present—as history. The semanticity of matter, which allows matter to refer to other things (including the past), is therefore intimately tied to a new model of causality based on meanings rather than physical states. My book Moral Materialism further details these aspects of a new causal view.
I believe that many topics of theological debate—such as whether there is a soul or God, whether these are identical or different, whether they have free will, whether they are individuals or merely undifferentiated existence, whether they are identical or different from matter, whether they fall into matter unknowingly and randomly or descend into it by their free will—are scientific questions whose answers can be gleaned from the nature of material reality. These debates can benefit from a deeper understanding of material nature, and from the idea that religion is not a form of faith but of knowledge.