This is the transcript of the seventh episode of the Shabda Podcast. In this episode, we will talk about the problem of epistemology or how do we know. We will go over some historical material regarding the methods of knowledge prevalent in Western philosophy and then look at the same problem from the perspective of Vedic philosophy. At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that history of philosophy is the history of epistemology. Only when we can decide how we know, can we apply this method of knowledge to know. And when we know then we can talk about the reality that exists, and why that reality enables knowledge. Then we can talk about how to express this knowledge through language and symbols, and then we can talk about whether this expression is beautiful, right or wrong, etc. So, every area of human inquiry follows from the question of how do we know. Given all these facts, it may not be an oversimplification to say that as our ideas about methods of knowledge have changed, so has our knowledge.
Table of Contents
The Problems in Empiricism
Let’s begin by talking a little bit about the history of epistemology in Western philosophy. I’m particularly interested in the genesis of the two dominant methods of knowing today, namely, empiricism and rationalism. Let’s begin by talking about empiricism first and then we can talk about rationalism. What is empiricism and what are the problems of this method of knowledge?
Empiricism is the idea that the mind is a blank slate from birth. That we observe the world of individual things, then we generalize these observations and see patterns of behavior, and from these patterns we arrive at concepts. Then we invent ways to represent these concepts through symbols, and language is created. Using language we express our experiences and their generalization. This linguistic expression of our experience and its generalization is called knowledge. It is not merely our private experience but something that others can understand and potentially agree upon that is called knowledge.
There are many problems in empiricism, but from the scientific perspective, the main problem is generalization. This problem of generalization has many distinct but related parts.
The first part is that when we generalize, we tend to reduce the variety of this world into a fewer concepts. The question is: How many such concepts? The method of generalization simply says that we must have as few concepts as absolutely necessary, and according to Occam’s razor we should not multiply entities beyond necessity. Which means that in generalization we have to find the fundamental ideas. But there is no criterion by which we can know if some idea is fundamental or not.
For example, in classical physics, we generalized all observations into the ideas of particles and waves. But who is to say that particle and wave are fundamental concepts? As science has later shown, the notion that some things are particles and some things are wave is a false idea. Things are both particles and waves, and yet they are not the kinds of particles and waves that we see in observation. So we have to throw away particle and wave and come up with something entirely different. But the problem is that we don’t know what new type of observation must be used to generalize from because particles and waves work quite well for practically all those things that physics was studying thus far. This means to find a new idea, we have to look at something that physics hasn’t looked at so far.
You may be surprised to hear this, but the method of generalization from the particular things is full of holes. We don’t know what particular instances we should generalize from because nothing in our experience is screaming out to be generalized. Whatever you generalize from seems to be your personal preference. Then again every time you generalize you ignore some features of the particular things. For example, a particle is an infinitesimal point and billiard balls and planets are very large objects. When we generalize planets and billiard balls into a particle, we strip them of a very obvious attribute—namely size. Now, the question is: Are we ignoring something important in order to force a generalization? What if the properties that we are ignoring to create generalization are crucial to that thing?
The second problem is that even after generalization there is no way to know that anything such as the general concept even exists. For example, nobody has ever seen an infinitesimal particle. Nobody has even seen mass or gravitational force. All we see is motion or change. We never see particles, mass, or gravity. As a simple example, the mass of 1 kg is defined as that which accelerates at 9.6 m/s on earth. So, mass is not defined or measured by itself. We rather measure motion and then say that something that moves like this must have this property. But it is entirely possible that someone else can come up with another way of explaining the same motion, which is based on equally unperceivable ideas.
Most people don’t know that all concepts of science are unperceivable. Nobody has seen a point particle, an electromagnetic wave, a gravitational field, mass, or charge. This is purely an invention of the human mind. When it works well we say that it must be true because it works so well. But the fact is that even if it works today we may find something new tomorrow where it doesn’t work.
This has happened many times in science already. For example, Newton initially proposed a corpuscular theory of light by extending the idea of particles in case of gravity. Nobody talks about this theory today because we found the interference phenomena which the corpuscular theory could not explain. So we said that light is not particles but waves. Then a few centuries passed and we found blackbody radiation where we could measure that light is indeed measured as particles but collectively it behaves as waves. Thus, we went from corpuscles to waves to something that is neither of these two things. Therefore, the idea that because it works it must be true is generally false, and it has been proven false many times. Our previous theories have been thrown out and new theories have been proposed.
Therefore, because science is changing, most people got tired of claiming that science represents the truth. They adopted a more tentative approach to science where they said that it works today in so far as we can tell, but if we find something that doesn’t work tomorrow then we will change science.
Now, at any given time there are many things that any scientific theory is unable to explain. For example, the Standard Model of particle physics only explains about 5% of the matter in the universe. The other 95% is supposed to be dark matter and dark energy for which we have no current explanation. So we are quite certain that the Standard Model doesn’t explain everything. And even within this 5% which the Standard Model explains, it doesn’t predict everything correctly. For example, neutrinos are predicted to be massless particles but observations show that they must have mass. So, not only do we have a partial explanation but even this partial explanation contradicts observations in some cases. In that sense the Standard Model—which is considered the pinnacle of scientific achievement today—is incomplete and it contradicts known facts. Does this mean we throw out the Standard Model and start fresh with something else? This generally doesn’t happen. We keep proclaiming the truth of the Standard Model because we have spent so much effort in building it and even when we know that it is incomplete and contradictory to facts we keep sticking to it.
While in theory we say that science builds models and we can change the models if the need arises, in practice we are far more attached to our scientific models unless something new comes around. Thomas Kuhn called this the problem of paradigm shift. An enormous amount of data has to accumulate to repudiate a theory before we will reject it. Until that time we keep tinkering with the model, hoping that somehow or other we will be able to fix it. And generally the people who fix these things have to face an enormous amount of resistance from the established orthodoxy because people have grown accustomed to the established model, even if they know that it doesn’t work correctly in all cases. The more successful a theory the harder it is to change it and get broad acceptance from others.
So, in summary, there is a problem of generalization from the particulars because we don’t know which particular thing we must generalize from. Then if this generalization works we still have no empirical evidence for the concepts themselves because we only observe motion or change but the concepts that are used to explain this motion or change remain outside empirical verification. Then even when we find that in some cases that the theory contradicts experiment we are unable to reject it unless we have an alternative. Even though we know that it is broken, we keep using it as far as we can. There is a methodological problem here, namely that we will never find a way that will tell us how to do better generalization, which means potentially science will remain incorrect forever. We will just build some theories which will live for some time until we find a problem and create a new theory.
So, science based on empirical method has no known end. It is an activity that produces some benefits but since it never ends we can never say that we have obtained true and complete knowledge. The theories of science are just like the products of engineering such as roads and bridges. Today you build some road and bridge and it will be useful for some decades and when the road or bridge has become old then you tear it down and build a new one and hopefully it would be a better one. Also, like the road and bridge there are some limitations for the use of the theory. The road or bridge is suited only for some types of vehicles, and will not work for every kind of transport you can imagine. Similarly, the theory will work in some cases and break down when you try to use it in every scenario.
This led some philosophers to coin the term Instrumentalism regarding scientific theories. Like the toolkit of a workman has many tools and the workman decides which tools to use when, similarly, science must be treated like the toolkit of a workman. The workman knows which tools to use, and that is his expertise. He doesn’t use a hammer to tighten a screw so a theory also cannot be used everywhere. And there will always be many kinds of partially useful theories. There is nothing sacred about the theory because you can replace one tool with a better tool tomorrow. You never say that you have the complete toolkit for all the jobs, and you never claim that your tools are perfect. You just use these tools and get a job done today, and hope that you will have better tools tomorrow.
Instrumentalism is the most sustainable philosophy of science today. And in this philosophy there is simply no claim that these tools can solve all problems, that these are the best tools, or even that we will continue to use the same tools tomorrow. Science is good for here and now, for the chosen set of problems we want to solve, to the extent that we are approximately able to solve them for our needs, until the time we discover some blatant limitations. We don’t know what we will do if the tools break down, or we find a new problem the tools cannot solve. So, instrumentalism takes out all claims of truth, reality, perfection, and intellectual superiority from science. A craftsman works with tools and the scientist works with theories which are just like tools. The tools are imperfect, but they are the best tools we have today, until we find some different or better tools. So, this is the problem of empiricism—there no guarantees, things may or may not work, we reserve the right to change everything at any time, and this knowledge comes at a huge cost which has to be borne by the public.
This approach to science would not be acceptable to many people who would like to equate science with the pursuit of truth and the discovery of the laws of nature which don’t change with time. But since the empirical method cannot guarantee this, and history has shown that laws keep changing, how do you justify that science is indeed very important to society and we must invest in it?
This is achieved by deception in science by which the public which pays for science has to be kept in the dark about the methodological problems otherwise they will stop paying for it. If you tell the public that the billions of dollars we are spending are for tentative and incremental improvements and it is not guaranteed to be true, that it may not always work, and that it can change anytime in the future, thereby wasting your investments, then the public will question this investment. Scientists want to stay away from this questioning and suppress any dissent that can create doubts about what they are doing. Just like the tool manufacturer doesn’t talk about the problems in his tools because his goal is to sell the tools and profit from it, similarly, scientists don’t like to talk about the problems in empiricism. So most people think that the scientific method stands on solid foundation and blindly believe in it.
The Problems in Rationalism
This is a bit concerning, and I will return to these issues a little later, and talk about why scientists don’t talk about the problems in the empirical method and just keep pretending that the empirical method is guaranteed to produce the truth. For the moment, let’s talk about reason and rationalism because it doesn’t seem to suffer from the problem of generalization. Why hasn’t reason been a complete substitute for empiricism, and what are the issues in rationalism?
There are three main problems in rationalism, which have remained unsolved for a long time.
The first problem is that reason operates on axioms or well-known ideas, but you cannot create new ideas simply by reasoning. This is the problem of creativity, or how you arrive at new theories and ideas. The empiricist would argue that we come up with new ideas by looking at the world. The world shows us new phenomena and we are inspired by these new phenomena to create new ideas. Ideally, the rationalist response can be that we can freely create new ideas because the power of creativity lies in us. But this type of claim is never made because it brings a risk, which is that someone can say that you are simply imagining things, and someone can imagine differently. How does this imagination help us, and why should we be interested in your imagination? In particular, how is rational thinking different from fictional literature where the author creates fictional characters, personalities, and situations and then goes about describing their behavior using logic and reason based on these fictional creations? So, rationalism runs the risk of being bundled with fiction if we say that creativity is within us.
So most rationalists are also Platonists. They claim that there is world of ideas which exists as pure possibility and we intuit this world through the mind and then express it through reason. So it is not merely our creation, and it is not obtained from the observation of phenomena. It is rather intuited from a world of ideas or possibilities. And what we prove using reason is true in all possible worlds, whether or not we find actual instances of these things within the present world here and now. The problem is that rationalism opens the gates to a new metaphysics where there is a world of Platonic ideas and our mind is able to perceive this world of ideas even without the senses. And to the extent that the real world follows the theories created by reason, we are compelled to believe that the real world is in some sense a reflection of the Platonic world of ideas. This then leads to the problems of how the Platonic world is reflected in the present world, and how the mind is able to perceive this world even when it is not reflected. So rationalism—contrary to what most people think—actually leads us into some kind of mysticism where there is a transcendent world and by our minds we can know this world.
The problem with this mysticism is that Enlightenment and Renaissance in Europe were predicated on the rejection of transcendence of religions. It was claimed that religion is based on faith and belief and we are not going to accept anything based on faith and belief. We will rather test it against reason and whatever doesn’t stand the test of rationality would be rejected. But the problem is that we cannot obtain new ideas by reason, unless we say that we are perceiving another world of ideas. Therefore, we must either be limited to what we already know, or we must accept transcendence and mental perception. So many people have been troubled by this contradiction that they stopped talking about how the mind discovers new ideas. They simply shut out the thought that by the mind we know a different type of reality which lies beyond this world of material objects. And this cuts into the foundation of rationalism because we don’t explain how the method finds new ideas.
The second problem is that ideas by their very nature constitute meanings and these meanings are contextual. For example, I can use the word ‘address’ or ‘gift’ as a noun or a verb, and what this word means depends on the context. Now this is a problem because if all rational knowledge is conceptual and concepts are contextual then by reason we cannot discover universal truth. We would rather be talking about contextual truth, which may not be true in all the possible worlds. So acknowledging that we are dealing with concepts entails that we are dealing with the contextual or the real world rather than the world of ideas, and this knowledge is not necessarily true in all possible worlds.
In fact, now it is known that if we try to universalize the knowledge of concepts then we end up in contradictions. Kurt Gödel famously showed linguistic terms such as numbers can be used in many different ways—e.g. nouns and verbs, universal and particular—and our inability to distinguish between these things leads to contradictions. So if we say that all rational truth is universal truth, then our truth is inconsistent or self-contradictory. And if we are only discovering contextual truth then everything we discover is only true in some context and cannot be called universally true knowledge.
The third problem is that of choice. Reason depends on axioms, but there is no reason for how we choose the axioms. You can choose one set of axioms and arrive at one set of conclusions, and I can arrive at a different conclusion using a different set of axioms. So you cannot say that your claims are more true than mine since you have used reason, because I have also used reason. Our differences arise because we have different axioms or assumptions. Again, reason doesn’t lead us to transpersonal truth. It is just true for me because I believe in some axioms and reason cannot be used to test the axioms. So you and I can be completely rational, and yet have completely different beliefs. We cannot call these beliefs ‘knowledge’ because every rational person can have different beliefs.
So this problem reduces to the issue of how to test the validity of axioms, and reason or rationality cannot help us here because rationality assumes the validity of axioms. It can only tell us if some conclusions follow from the premises, but it cannot tell us if the premises are true.
So these are the three problems in rationalism. First, we don’t know how we can explain creativity without acknowledging a transcendent world and non-sensual direct perception by the mind. Without this explanation we risk looking the same as the religious ideologues that preceded rationalism, or like poets and novelists who create fictional or poetic ideas rather than precise reasoned arguments. Second, even if we acknowledge the existence of a transcendent Platonic world of ideas, the nature of meaning makes this contextual rather than universal truth, which means it may be true sometimes and false at other times. Third, there is an element of choice in selecting axioms, which means that what I consider true may be contradictory to what you consider truth, and we are both rational.
Now some philosophers have tried to overcome these problems in rationalism by saying that the mind is not a blank slate at birth. Immanuel Kant for example said that the mind has pre-formed ideas such as space and time, matter and causality, which are used as goggles to view the world. And we are born with these googles so this is innate knowledge. The problem is that these goggles are not universal. Everyone is wearing some goggles to see, and if these goggles are not universal then we have to explain how each person got a different set of goggles right from birth. This quickly leads into the problem of reincarnation where you must have acquired the goggles in a previous life. But that would be an unacceptable solution to most rationalists and empiricists, so we don’t actually go there.
Metaphysics for Workable Empiricism and Rationalism
Given these problems of empiricism and rationalism it seems that there is no solid foundation for either method. This makes me wonder because experience and reason are recognized as valid methods of knowledge in Vedic philosophy too. Why are they considered valid methods when there are numerous problems in these methods as you have just outlined?
It is true that reason and experience are recognized as valid methods of knowledge, but the underlying metaphysical assumptions in Vedic philosophy are quite different.
The first difference is that the world is idea-like rather than object-like. So, the problem of Platonism in Western philosophy does not arise because we don’t have to look to a transcendent world in order to obtain new ideas. We can in fact look at the present world and we can derive ideas from the observation of this world. This is also the reason why the empirical method appears to work in generating new ideas. These ideas are not being generated as free creativity of the mind. Rather, they are perceptions of the mind by which the mind is able to see ideas within this world. To understand this solution, however, we have to recognize that the mind is also a sense; it is called the sixth sense in Vedic philosophy. By the five senses we perceive the sensations such as taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. And by the mind we perceive ideas such as table, chair, house, computer, human, car, etc. So there are two types of empiricism in Vedic philosophy—the first of the senses and the second of the mind.
These are involved in the perception of two different kinds of entities that combine to create experience. Therefore, when we say that we are generalizing the individual things into concepts, it is not necessary to simply come up with an idea freely. We can also generalize through the mind. For example, when we call some things as dogs and others as cats we are not generalizing. We are actually seeing by the mind and we are seeing the common or shared form between different individual members. So, the notion that the ideas exist in this world and we are able to perceive the ideas by the mind resolves the problem of generalization in empiricism and the problem of Platonic world in rationalism. Now the issue is that we have to develop the mind to correctly perceive the similarities of form. Therefore, doing science or acquiring knowledge becomes a process of how we develop the mental faculty of perception.
The second difference in Vedic philosophy is that the space and time of this world is like an inverted tree rather than like a box. Remember that by the senses we can see individual things, but by the mind we are seeing commonalities between things. If there is objective commonality then how the same thing appears in many individual things needs to be explained. For example, how does the idea of color appear in many types of colors such as red, blue, green, etc.? The answer to this problem is that color is like a branch of a tree from which many individual twigs such as red, blue, and green are manifest. So, the idea that is shared across more ideas has a higher position on this inverted tree, just like the trunk of the tree is common across many branches, but the branch is common across fewer leaves. So, we organize the ideas in a tree-like structure such that the more general idea is higher up in the tree. By this approach we come to the conclusion that all ideas are not universal. Rather, some ideas are more universal while other ideas are more local. Therefore, we can see many more types of animals, a fewer number of mammals, an even fewer number of dogs, and an even fewer number of poodles. But when we see a poodle, then it is also a dog, a mammal, and an animal. Therefore, the sense perception is just seeing an individual thing, but the mental perception is seeing the entire hierarchy of ideas.
With this revision, we solve the problem of contextuality in rationalism, because all ideas are not necessarily universal. Some ideas are less universal than others so the idea can be true in many contexts, but the idea doesn’t have to be true universally. We could not solve this problem in Platonism because all the ideas are universals, and they were equally universal. But with the tree-structure existing within this world, we not only see the ideas within this world, but these ideas are also contextual.
The third main difference is that what we call the body or object in modern science is defined as a role and this role creates the individual thing from the general idea. The individual thing is therefore not a material substance. Rather this individual is the consciousness of the soul. And this consciousness combines with the idea, so this combination of the individual and the general creates the object. That object has general properties like color, taste, smell, form, size, etc. And yet that general thing is instantiated as a particular because each particular thing is produced by the combination of the individual soul and the general concept. The consciousness of the soul is called sat and the general concept is called chit. And the combination of the sat and chit constitutes the combination of the individual and general. So, there is one universal reality which exists as the tree of concepts which is called the chit. And there are infinite individual realities of the soul which roam on this tree of concepts and combine with different parts of this tree, creating different objects with different concepts.
This is the solution to the problem of choice in rationalism where we can choose different axioms and come up with different conclusions. The solution is that yes we can roam on this universal tree and see only different parts of the tree, but that doesn’t deny the existence of the universal tree. To know the absolute truth we have to look toward the unified root rather than the diverse branches. If we consider a branch to be the root of the tree, then there are infinite axioms. But we can reduce the number of axioms by moving our consciousness upward until we come to a single axiom which is the root. So we have the choice of neglecting the root and seeing only the branches. But choice doesn’t deny the root from which all the branches emanate. In fact, the root explains the existence of my choice or the very reason that I am able to make a choice that differs from the choices of other individuals.
The fourth main difference is that with this tree-like structure, we can provide a very clear definition of scientific progress. The progress is rising from the leaves to the branches to the trunks to the root. This sense of progress can be explained in many ways. First, rising up this tree constitutes the application of Occam’s razor by which we reduce the number of assumptions, and the knowledge becomes more and more unified. Second, this method also explains why at one time we thought that the world is like particles and then we thought it is like waves and then we realize that we need to arrive at something that is both particle and wave and yet it is none of them. This new entity that is both particle and wave and yet neither of them is like the trunk from which two branches (particle and wave) emerge. Our knowledge is progressing because we are attaining greater unity. Third, if we encounter a new phenomenon that our current theory is unable to explain, then it is like a new branch emerging from a different trunk and we have to first understand that branch and trunk, but the result will be two contradictory theories for two separate branches. The unity is attained only by the root. So, by defining the structure of knowledge as a tree, we are able to provide a definition of progress. This doesn’t mean that we know the perfect thing right away. But we can say that if we follow the origin of the tree, then perfect knowledge will certainly be attained one day. The effort spent in earning this knowledge is not a wasteful exercise. Rather we have a continuous sense of progressive advancement.
So, in this way, by changing the metaphysical assumptions about the world we solve all the problems of epistemology which have existed in both empiricism and rationalism. You can say: Why should I believe in this metaphysics? What evidence exists for claiming that it is true? And the short answer is that it is a valid solution to all the problems of epistemology. So even though you cannot empirically see everything the very fact that it solves all the problems can be used to infer that it is the best approach. The claim is that you cannot find a problem that this metaphysics does not solve. Therefore, you can go on investigating if there are problems in this solution. If you find a problem, then we can reject this metaphysics, but if you don’t find a problem, then the metaphysics will stand unchallenged.
So, you’re right that experience and reason are also considered valid methods of knowledge in Vedic philosophy but the reasons for this claim are totally different. These are not the reasons based on the metaphysics of Western philosophy where we already noted many problems. They are rather based on a completely different metaphysics where all the problems are solved. So, the rationalism and empiricism of Vedic philosophy still involves the mind and senses, and a real external world with the observer in it, but all these things are redefined in the process of coming up with the justification for reason and experience. In fact, now we don’t even have to pit reason against experience or vice versa. By reason we traverse the universal conceptual tree by the mind, and by experience we traverse this tree by our senses. When we traverse the tree by the senses we also have the mind present, so the sensual traversal is more complete than the mental traversal. However, the mental traversal of the tree is possible within the current body simply by developing our mental faculties. It would be much harder to travel all over the universe by the body rather than traveling the universe by the mind. Therefore, even though the sensual experience is more complete, the mental experience is more practical. Therefore, the process of cultivating knowledge by traveling the tree mentally is called jnana-yoga or the method by which we can see the unity in the diversity through the mind.
Rationale for Learning from Authority
You have already talked about mental development a couple of times. I understand that in Vedic philosophy there is also a mystical branch which speaks to this mental development by which we can develop the mind. And it is said that by this mental development we can perceive by both reason and experience the realities that we cannot perceive in the current state. However, for most people investing the time and energy in such mystical practices to develop the mind before they can perceive the unseen realities becomes a non-starter. They would like to know about an easier method by which this same knowledge can be attained without the hardship of the mystical practices.
You are making a good point. The system of astanga-yoga is meant to help a person advance mentally and intellectually by which they can perceive the entire universe within their body. In this system, the structure of the body is analogous to the structure of the universe. That is, the body is described as a tree and as we understand this tree by withdrawing our consciousness from the external world to the root of the tree first in the stomach, then in the heart and finally in the head, we can obtain complete knowledge. But this practice is very hard for most people because it very difficult to control the mind. The mind jumps around like a monkey and everybody gets restless very quickly. So we are unable to concentrate the mind onto one thing for any significant duration of time. This means the method of knowledge becomes very hard practically speaking and most people are unable to practice it.
The answer to this difficulty is that if you are unable to pursue the methods of reason and experience because these methods are very hard in the metaphysics that solves all the epistemological problems, then you can defer to learning from authorities. We must remember that this learning from authorities is only in lieu of our own practical inabilities to control and focus the mind, which are essential to mental development. If you cannot discover something yourself, you can ask an authority.
Most people misunderstand this deference to authority. They think it is like the Western religious reliance on scripture in an unquestioning way, and they take pride in their own abilities to learn by reason and experience. So, the deference to authority is not a method for them. These people have to first go through the process of mind control to develop their minds and if they have tried to practice this for any length of time, their pride in their abilities would be shattered quickly because they will realize that they are even unable to practice the method that can lead them to knowledge, forget about actually perfecting that method and then using it to attain perfect knowledge.
The deference to authority is for those people who have understood that they have to develop the mind to know the unity in diversity, and then practiced it to recognize that they are failures. Then their conviction about the need and their frustration with their inability will make them humble. That is the point they can approach an authority because the pride has been shattered. Unless one has performed these types of austerities a person generally remains puffed up with false and unjustified pride. He just thinks he knows something or at least knows the method to knowing, even when he is ignorant.
So approaching an authority is not whimsical. If you haven’t put in the necessary effort from your side, and realized the problems, even if you approach the authority it is going to be of little use. Therefore, many people take on gurus for fashion and think that just by accepting a guru or initiation they have already become perfect. It is like the Catholic church baptizes people and thereafter people start thinking that by accepting the church’s authority they are already in perfect knowledge. This is a false idea. The recommended process is that you approach an authority, inquire submissively, hear attentively, and then render service, if you want to obtain perfect knowledge. This is not for everyone, especially those who think that inquiring submissively and rendering service makes them inferior. It is only for those who have pursued the individualistic path of knowledge and realized that submissive inquiry and rendering service is an easier path than the individualistic hardship.
Discovery vs. Verification
So assuming that a person is humble and submissive and he has tried and failed in the past and realized the difficulties, should he now just blindly accept the knowledge given by authority?
No, each person has to rationally and empirically verify that knowledge. There are two parts of knowledge acquisition—the first part is called discovery and the second part is called verification. Just like if you are trying to crack the password of some computer in order to login to the computer, you have a discovery phase where you come up with a variety of passwords based on the knowledge about the person, such as their likes and dislikes, their names or the of their family members, their date of birth, place of birth, or other things that they consider are easily recallable. This discovery is not guaranteed to work. For example, someone may use a very complex randomly generated password that you will not be able to crack. But suppose someone just tells you the password, and you go and verify that using the password you are able to login to the computer. So, the role of authority is to tell you the password and the role of reason and experience is that you verify that the password works.
There is a conjecture in computer science which is called P≠NP. It means that the complexity of discovering something is not equal to the process of verifying the answer. There are many problem for which the verification is very easy but the discovery is very hard. So understanding reality is a NP-hard problem which means that finding the answer is very difficult. But if you know the answer through an authority then verifying the answer is very easy. All computer cryptography relies on this premise that it is very hard to find the password but very easy to verify the password. Therefore, the cryptographic keys are stored in the computer using which the computer itself can verify the person who is logging in very easily. But if a hacker tries to figure out the password, then the problem is NP-hard.
So, the method of empiricism and rationalism when applied to discovery of the answer is NP-hard. It will take a very long time to get the answer. But the method of empiricism and rationalism is very easy once it is applied to verification of the answer. So, nobody is discouraging you from using the method of reason and empiricism to find the answer. In fact, it is in some sense essential that you try it yourself before you become frustrated with the hardship, because then when you ask an authority you will have the necessary humility to accept the answer and then try to verify it yourself. Asking an authority is not about blind faith. It is about finding out the password and then verifying it yourself. Therefore, it is sometimes said that we must trust but verify. This trust means that we accept someone as the authority enough to obtain an answer but we must verify the answer by reason and experience.
The deference to authority is misunderstood by most people who think that you just blindly surrender to some authority and dogmatically accept whatever they say and that becomes the truth. The right understanding is that this deference to authority is only for discovery not for verification. So, there is a method of reason and experience for the individualistic seeker which tries to discover the answer themselves. And then there is a method of reason and experience which is applied for verification. So in Vedic philosophy all these three methods are recognized, but they have a place of their own. These are not contradictory methods because you must have some practical experience to even accept some ideas, and you must have the reasoning power to understand the answer. And yet since the discovery is NP-hard, you have to ask an authority about the answer before you verify it.
Practical Application of Three Methods
So it seems that reason, experience and authority are not contradictory ideas. First of all reason and experience are not contradictory when we change the metaphysics and this change is not just for reconciling reason and experience but also for solving the internal problems in rationalism and empiricism. But when we reconcile the methods we find an individualistic but very long and hard method of discovery, and to solve the problem of hardness we use authority without giving up verification. Let’s change the topic a little bit and talk about what this means in terms of practical application. How do we apply this method in practice to pursue knowledge?
This is a great question, even in the context of Vedic philosophy. I try to follow the combination of the three methods in describing an understanding of nature based on Vedic philosophy. So the first step here is authority—I accept the authority of Vedic texts, namely that they are telling us the truth. But the story doesn’t end there. I also use reason and conceptual analysis to explain what this knowledge means. For example, the ideas discussed in this episode such as the world is idea-like, that there is a tree of concepts, that individuals are created from the combination of concept and consciousness, and by this solution we can solve the problems of epistemology are all reasoned arguments. So I don’t just accept the authority of Vedic texts blindly. I rather apply them to real conceptual and philosophical problems and show that this solution makes sense because it solves long-standing problems. So, there is practical utility in adopting these ideas. Then, I take these ideas a step further and then apply them to modern science and show that using these ideas we can create new theories which are much better than current theories. For example, we have in earlier episodes talked about how we can overcome the incompleteness of mathematics, or how we can solve the problem of probability in atomic theory, or how we can understand evolutionary theory in biology in a completely new way.
So it is not blind acceptance of Vedic ideas. Rather, we first accept these ideas to study the Vedic texts. Then we apply our rationality to perform a conceptual and theoretical analysis to understand these texts and create a conceptual framework which can be applied to real-world problems. Then we extend this conceptual framework and apply it to the problems of the real world and solve them. So, the first step is authority, the next step is rationality and the final step is empirical confirmation. All these methods are operating in tandem and without contradiction. So through my work hopefully I am trying to illustrate how these three methods are not contradictory but can be reconciled and used together.
Others can take this as a template of how these three methods can be used together, and apply it themselves. In fact, every intelligent person is urged to do so because the purpose of human life is to find the nature of reality and truth. It is not just survival because even the animals are surviving. If we just keep focusing on survival then there would be no difference between humans and animals.
Materialism will Undermine Science
This has been a great conversation but I have one more topic that I would like to cover. There is a general antipathy in modern society to the word of the scripture and the method of reason and experience is touted as answer to scriptural authority for the last few centuries in the Western world. How do you think this approach can be changed, and what happens if we don’t change it?
The Age of Enlightenment came up with these methods of rationalism and empiricism to undermine the authority of religion but philosophers and scientists have never been able to give these methods a good grounding. As we talked about earlier, the most sustainable approach under these methods is instrumentalism where all knowledge is temporary, anything can be revised at any time, and yet you pay a lot of money through taxes to learn something that will be outdated tomorrow. So there are serious problems in the modern scientific understanding of empiricism and rationalism because the West rejected the existence of meaning and consciousness at the outset. It is not their pursuit of reason and experience which is the problem. It is rather the materialism which creates all the problems. As we have talked about earlier, if we give up this materialism and recognize meaning and consciousness as fundamental categories in nature, then reason and experience are not the issues.
But science is fundamentally committed to materialism, and they disguise their commitment as the commitment to reason and experience. Materialism is as much as metaphysical assumption as spiritualism. So, prima facie there should be equal opportunities given to both types of metaphysical assumptions as long as we remain within the confines of reason and experience. But scientists don’t want to do that, because the real motive is not reason and experience but rather materialism.
Their commitment to materialism is so significant that they even hide the problems of empiricism and rationalism under the rug and don’t talk about them. And the philosophers who bring up these problems are generally disregarded and neglected, and some scientists even claim that philosophy is dead because it talks about all these problems in the method of science. So science operates like a salesman rather than an intellectual. A salesman advertises the beauty of his products and does not talk about the problems. Similarly, science is open to discussion as long as one remains within the confines of materialism. But if you question that materialism then scientists become very vicious.
People do not realize that materialism is a metaphysical commitment. Even early empiricists such as George Berkeley and David Hume saw this problem. They said that you can perceive sensations by the senses but you don’t know what is behind these sensations. And since you don’t really know what is behind the sensations all your theories are just mental speculations. Therefore, all the ideas in modern science such as electrons, protons, quarks, energy, momentum, mass, charge, etc. are complete fictions because nobody has been able to experience them directly. We only experience color, taste, smell, sound, and sight. So, why claim that these sensations are what the world is built up from, because at least you can experience them whereas you cannot experience physical properties?
This is where the bias in science becomes evident because John Locke said that in science we are going to draw a distinction between our sensations and the objective properties which we measure in science. Our sensations are color, taste, smell, sound, and touch and Locke called them “secondary properties”, whereas mass, charge, energy, momentum, electron, proton, quark, etc. are “primary properties”. Locke made a materialistic assumption that the world that exists beyond our sensation is objective properties but he never was able to justify this idea philosophically. This assumption is the inherent materialistic bias in science. Even as Berkeley and Hume were arguing that you can never know what lies behind the sensations, Locke and others like him were moving ahead with the materialism, and this has become the foundation of modern science. And the materialists have a deliberate agenda to undermine the legitimate criticisms in the metaphysics and methods by which science is pursued.
The rejection of scriptural authority only follows due to materialism and not due to experience and reason, because every scripture has some understanding of mind and spirit, and the origin of the world is based on spirit rather than matter. Scientists don’t mind that their methods and theories remain tentative and problematic. They have a much bigger problem with anything outside materialism. And they disguise their metaphysical assumptions under the garb of reason and experience. To be a scientist today you have to be a materialist. All your theories and ideas are acceptable as long as they are rational and empirical and they are propounded within the broad framework of materialism.
But this commitment to materialism will be ultimately science’s own undoing, because the problems of incompleteness, indeterminism, uncertainty, and probability facing science can never be solved within the materialist framework. Most scientists have recognized that it is futile to even search for answers in the materialist framework and they urge others to “shut up and calculate”. So this is the undoing of science because they don’t want to examine their own metaphysical assumptions. And over time their progress will be limited by their own assumptions until they discard them. And when these assumptions are discarded the current orthodoxy would be viewed as dogmatic by the future generations.
People will write the history by saying that Christianity failed to satisfy the inquisitive mind and the inquisitive mind therefore invented the method of reason and experience along with materialism. They would have done well with reason and experience without materialism, but they chose materialism, and this choice (which was meant to spite Christianity) ultimately led to the undoing of science.
In Vedic philosophy, we are not opposed to reason and experience; in fact we welcome it. We are only opposed to the reductive materialism which says that there is matter with primary properties and everything reduces to these properties. In Vedic philosophy there is a different kind of non-reductive materialism in which there are many types of material realities beyond the sensations. So once we understand this non-reductive materialism then we can understand soul and God. The process doesn’t have to begin with soul and God. It can also begin in understanding the body and mind, and in most Vedic texts there is a description of matter prior to the discussion of the transcendent reality.
So, modern science is not the only type of science possible. There is a different type of materialism which is much more interesting and free of the problems in modern science—both in the method as well as in the outcomes of the application of the method. If we understand that method and its use then we can create a non-reductive science, followed by the understanding soul and God.