This post discusses the relevance of the idea of “gross” and “subtle” matter in Sāńkhya to the problems of prediction in quantum theory, highlighting the solution using everyday examples. I also discuss how the attempts to divorce “gross” and “subtle” matter, or reduce “subtle” matter to “gross” matter, lead to the widespread proliferation of alternate “spiritualities”, which are thriving on the misconceptions about the quantum problem: wherever you look, you can find impersonalistic or voidistic “spirituality” based on a flawed interpretation of the quantum phenomena. The post discusses why a solution to this problem based on Sāńkhya would not only produce a scientific theory and advance science to a newer understanding of matter, but also show why such alternative “spiritualities” are nothing but flawed conceptions about consciousness.
Table of Contents
Physical Properties vs. Meanings
Sāńkhya describes material objects as vāk (which literally means “sound”), which are expressions of meanings in manas or the mind. The basic idea is that while we can measure the physical properties of sound such as frequency, wavelength, amplitude etc., we cannot remain content with these physical properties alone because such properties also represent some meanings.
For example, a high amplitude sound means that the sound is loud, and if something is said in a loud voice, then it has a different meaning than if it is said softly. Similarly, a high-frequency sound means that the sound is shrill, and that shrillness has a different meaning than dullness. In that sense, we don’t need to discard the physical properties—e.g. amplitude and frequency—but those physical properties are not sufficient in themselves from an observer’s perspective. We must rather also understand the meaning of the sound—even when it could be measured purely as physical properties.
This is the starting point for a major difference between Sāńkhya and modern science, which is that science is content with measuring properties such as frequency and amplitude, while Sāńkhya is also interested in what these values mean to an observer.
Interpreting the Meaning of a Sound
A loud sound sometimes mean that the speaker is angry. In other cases, it can also mean that the person is delighted. Sometimes a shrill sound can be conceived as pain and anger, while at other times that shrillness can indicate a squeal in happiness. There are hence two things in the sound—the quantitative value and a qualitative meaning. If you only measure the quantitative value—e.g. the frequency of sound—then you can’t be sure whether it denotes a shriek in pain or a squeal in pleasure. Similarly, if you only measure the quantitative value of amplitude, then you can’t be sure whether that loudness represents someone’s anger or delight. The measurement of physical properties alone, therefore, does not adequately determine the meanings from an observer’s standpoint.
However, if you specify the meaning then the quantitative value of the property is automatically fixed. For example, if you are silently angry then there will be roughness in the tone of your voice, although the volume of the voice would be low. If on the other hand, you are delighted and surprised, your voice would have a gleeful tone, and it would also be loud. Our senses measure the tone and pitch of the sound, quite like physical instruments. But our mind gives these sounds meanings—e.g. that the person is happy or sad, angry or overjoyed. The scientific question is whether the meaning is only derived from the sound, or is the sound prior produced from the meaning?
The Question of Determinism
If you try to derive meanings from physical properties, then you will often make mistakes because a loud sound can denote a happy person or an angry person. But if you already know the mental state—i.e. happy vs. angry—then you can easily predict how the resulting sound would be. (Of course, the pitch of the sound produced isn’t just a function of whether the person is happy or sad, but of their overall mental state, including the personality such as whether they are introverts or extroverts.)
In that sense, we cannot deterministically derive meanings from physical properties but we can deterministically derive physical properties from meanings. If science deals only with physical properties, then it cannot predict the human observations of meaning—although it can make probabilistic claims—e.g. that a loud sound indicates a 50% probability that the person might be happy and a 50% probability that the person might be angry. Our predictions become incomplete and probabilistic when we try to convert physical properties into meanings. But if you already know whether the person is happy or angry, you can deterministically predict the sound. The sound to meaning conversion is indeterministic, but the meaning to sound conversion is deterministic.
Given this fact, Sāńkhya gives priority to meanings over physical properties. In other words, we derive the sound from meanings, rather than meanings from sound. This is often expressed by saying that the meaning precedes the sound. The reason is that if we try to derive meanings from sounds, we can at best only obtain probabilities. But when we derive sound based on meanings, we can accurately tell both the sound and the meaning.
The Problem of Completeness
The goal of science is to make accurate predictions. To make these predictions, science must explain the effect using some cause. In the above examples, the meaning in the mind is the cause of its effects (e.g. loud or soft sound). Science has, however, systematically disregarded and undermined the role of meanings, in order to separate matter from mind. It claims that there are only physical properties—e.g. the frequency and amplitude of sound—and the meanings of these sounds have no relevance to science.
If the underlying cause is a physical property, then its measurement would also reveal a physical effect, and we can easily correlate the physical cause with the physical effect. Science can, under such a situation, produce a complete theory of physical properties and predictions over time. However, if the underlying cause is a meaning, but its effect is a physical property, then we cannot use the effect to derive a cause, because the same effect can be produced by many causes—e.g. a loud sound can be produced by two different mental states of a person—happy or angry. Just because you measured a loud sound, you cannot say whether the underlying cause was happiness or anger. Now, you can, at best, offer a probabilistic explanation of the observation—e.g. that loud sound (effect) can mean the cause is happiness 50% of the time, and anger 50% of the time. (This is an example, and I don’t mean to imply that anger and happiness are the only causes of loud sound.)
Probabilities are naturally and automatically borne in a scientific theory if the effect is physical but the cause is a meaning. We can never—in principle—fix this problem by trying to find better and better physical causes. The only way to explain this cause-effect relation is to say that the cause is a meaning because knowing that meaning—happiness or anger—will help us deterministically predict the effect. In other words, if we stick to a physical theory, the prediction will always remain probabilistic. But if we shift to a theory in which the cause is meaning, then the prediction can be made deterministic.
Meanings and Quantum Theory
Quantum theory is known to be irrevocably probabilistic, and these probabilities are known to be unfixable by the addition of more physical properties due to Bell’s Theorem. If we try to add more physical properties to overcome the probability (treating it as some type of missing causality) then the theory contradicts observations.
This can be understood through some simple everyday examples. For instance, if someone is talking softly and we interpret it as being caused due to alack of energy, then we can find situations in which there is even lesser energy but the sound is louder. Conversely, if the person is talking loudly and we interpret it as being caused by high energy then we can find another state of even higher energy in which the sound is much softer. In other words, we cannot reliably explain the volume of the sound based on the presence of absence of a physical property—e.g. energy—and any attempt to do so would only lead to contradictions. Quantum theorists have proven this fact (Bell’s Theorem) that any attempt to complete the theory based on new physical properties will only produce contradictions; such an attempt cannot complete the description consistently.
These twin problems—namely that quantum theory is probabilistic and the problem cannot be solved by adding physical properties—point towards a serious difficulty in physics which has raged for over a century now. Sāńkhya provides a solution to this problem, which is that the underlying cause is not a physical property but a meaning. The quantum reality—when treated as physical properties—will produce probabilities. When that reality is treated as meanings, it will produce determinism.
Quantum Theory and Sāńkhya
Quantum theory indicates an irrevocable failure of classical materialism in which matter is defined as physical properties. Many people—following John von Neumann—have jumped at this failure to conclude that the failure indicates a role for conscious choices, which is then expected to compensate for the probability. Essentially, the conscious choice, in this view, “selects” one of the many possibilities, thereby creating an observation. But such conclusions lead to even more problems about how conscious choices interact with physical properties—e.g. the frequency and amplitude of the sound.
Sāńkhya points to why this interaction is unnecessary—no interaction between matter and consciousness is needed because the physical properties are produced from meanings. Meanings should be treated as a new kind of matter that modern science has neglected—because these meanings were supposed to be in a “mind” which was then considered “spiritual” following the Cartesian split between mind and matter inducted historically to address the conflict between the beliefs of Church and the reasons of science.
In classical Christian theology, there are only two kinds of entities—matter and soul. Therefore anything non-material has to be viewed as the soul. This is, however, not a necessity in Sāńkhya where there are many deeper layers of matter between physical properties and the soul. These include the senses, mind, intellect, ego, etc. which are not the soul. By treating the “mind” as the “soul”, Western philosophy—which emerged out of Christian apologetics—commits a grave error which can be rectified if there are other “deeper” levels of material reality that are not physical properties and not the soul.
The Sāńkhya solution is scientific in that it speaks about a new category of matter—which corresponds to “meanings”—which is neither physical properties nor the soul. When material reality is seen as meanings then both the quantum problem and its solution are quickly demystified: we can see that meanings cause physical effects, but we cannot use the effect to predict the cause because a loud sound can mean an angry person or a happy person. Similarly, the solution is also obvious: by knowing the meaning, we can predict the physical state deterministically simply by allowing a new category of matter.
The fix for the quantum problem is therefore not “spirituality”. The fix is deeper levels of matter. By studying these deeper levels of matter, science would be within the purview of materialism, although it would advance the understanding of matter towards meanings. This is not the final step, however, because there are many further deeper levels of matter. However, by recognizing that there is something beyond physical properties, we now open the doors to a general process which can be repeated a few times as science goes deeper and deeper into human “subjectivity” although for many of these initial steps it only encounters newer types of matter rather than spirit itself.
The Upright and Inverted Trees
Since a loud sound can mean an angry or happy person, most people normally suppose that derivation of the meaning from the sound requires an interpretation. Different people can give diverse meanings to the same state—someone thinking that the person is happy, while others thinking that he is sad. In this view of meanings, there is one root—i.e. the loud sound—but there are two branches (happy vs. sad) emanating from the root. The tree is “upright” because the physical properties are the root, while their interpretations (the meanings which are above their material roots) appear as shoots from the root.
This view of meanings, however, doesn’t address the quantum problem. It only points to the fact that we might not accurately know the meaning of the sound, but it doesn’t explain why we would have a problem in the prediction of the sound itself. For example, as seen in an earlier post, the meanings of the sentence “I saw a man on a hill with a telescope” can be varied but the order of the words is fixed, and science should be able to predict the word-order even if it cannot predict the meanings.
This view of meanings as offshoots of physical properties doesn’t address the quantum problem because the quantum problem pertains to predicting the word order itself! We are not, therefore, interested in meanings to overlay a physically complete reality with an interpretation of our choosing. We are rather introducing meanings precisely because science is now unable to predict the order of the words themselves!
Given the sentence “I saw a man on a hill with a telescope” you cannot tell the meaning accurately because it is encoded in a structure that is flattened in the sentence. Since you don’t know the meaning, the order of words in the sentence appears probabilistic (e.g. the word “hill” has a certain probability of recurrence in all English sentences). But once you understand the meaning, you can predict the word order. The word order thus cannot be used to predict the meaning, but given the meaning we can predict the word order.
The meaning exists as an inverted tree of defining the details rather than an upright tree of “interpretations”. The hypothesis of an upright tree of meanings doesn’t solve the quantum problem convincingly because it believes that meanings are “derived” from physical states. The hypothesis of an inverted tree of meanings solves the quantum problem because it indicates that physical states are derived from meanings.
The Mistakes in Analytic and Continental Philosophy
Analytic philosophy—largely practiced in the English-speaking world—wants to believe that there are only material states, and we must be able to reduce meanings (and mind) to these states. Continental philosophy—largely practiced on the European continent—argues that such a reduction cannot be carried out, although they are still referring to an upright tree in which meanings spring from physical states. The analytic philosophers are “reductionists” because they reduce meanings to physical states. The continental philosophers are “anti-reductionists” but they are no less materialistic because ultimately the “ground” from which meanings spring is the physical/material state.
The mistake in anti-reduction is that since meanings can never be reduced to physical states, I can never know whether you are angry or happy simply by hearing the sound of your voice. We are, in a sense, trapped inside the hell-hole of our loneliness, because I can never communicate to you exactly what I think and feel, and no matter how hard I try to explain my mental state, you will have your own “interpretation” of what I’m thinking and feeling, and we can therefore never completely “understand” each other.
The mistake in reduction is that loud sound can denote anger or happiness, and you cannot reduce this emotion to the physical state deterministically. The reductionist now decides to put the dagger in his own heart—insisting that anger or happiness is just an illusion—and there is no such thing as mind, consciousness, experience, or free will. How such an illusion is created, and why we claim there is some reality discovered through perception, when all perception is ultimately an illusion, remains unexplained.
The Pervasion of False Spirituality
You can find “spiritual solace” in either reduction or anti-reduction. You can, for instance, say that since my mind is not reducible to matter (like the anti-reductionist), therefore, I am not matter; rather, I am a “mind” which is not to be equated to a body, because meanings do not reduce to matter. You can also say that since all experience is ultimately an illusion (as the reductionist claims), this world is false and I—in the sense of a “mind” with meanings—don’t exist. The false view of meanings in reductionism leads to voidism, and the false view of meanings in anti-reductionism leads to impersonalism.
Voidism and Impersonalism are aberrations about the self when we flatten the tree of meanings or make the tree stand upright. If you make the tree upright you become an impersonalist claiming that the mind transcends matter, and there is hence no objective basis for knowing the meanings, and there cannot be a meaning in anything except myself. If you flatten the tree you discard the mind itself and kill yourself.
The tree of meanings cannot be flattened and it cannot be stood upright because both positions are incompatible with science. The tree has to be inverted in which “gross” forms of matter (e.g. physical states) emerge from “subtle” forms of matter (e.g. meanings). This conclusion follows from the attempts to address the problem of quantum theory, and the position isn’t therefore just my faith, although it needs a new understanding of what we mean by “quantum reality”—i.e. not physical states. Sāńkhya is relevant today because it addresses problems in modern science and establishes a kind of spirituality which is different from the “spiritualties” of impersonalism and voidism prevalent today.