Perception in Indian Philosophy

How we perceive taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight is a fact about our perception, but it has never been properly understood in biology, psychology, or philosophy. The problem is that we suppose material objects to be the length, mass, charge, momentum, energy, temperature, etc. How these physical properties become taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight remains a mystery because the sensations have qualitative properties (and are described as types) while the objects do not. If eyes, nose, ears, skin, and tongue are material objects, then they could only have physical properties, not qualities. How can then we perceive qualities?


The materialists argue that there is nothing in nature other than physical properties. How we know these properties (via sensations) is secondary to how nature itself exists. So, how material properties become sensations is an enigma of science—which we will figure out one day.

Indian philosophy dramatically differs in this respect. Unlike Western philosophy, where the reality of the material world drives the solution to the problem of perception, in Indian philosophy, the problem of perception drives the nature of material reality. This might seem very problematic to Western philosophers because they have grown up thinking that the world existed before we arrived at it. However, in Indian philosophy, the world exists precisely because we are here to perceive it. This is not just an academic difference about whether matter is logically prior to the observers or vice versa; it is also a question about how matter itself is described in the two approaches.

Perceptions and Reality

To illustrate, let’s consider the perception of color. We see that roses and apples are red. In Western philosophy, the redness of the apple is an illusion; it is called naive realism by which we attribute our perceptions to the world. The apple in itself is not red; it is some atoms and molecules, with physical properties. The argument against the realism of redness is that it involves a qualitative perception of color, which could not be real if the observer’s senses did not exist.

So, to suppose that the apple is indeed red, we would have to only measure this object in relation to observers; we could not measure this object in relation to the other objects that are incapable of perceiving the apple (e.g., a meter measuring an apple does not actually perceive it). And if we could not measure the apple in relation to such objects, then its properties and scientific behaviors would only be defined in relation to the observers, not in relation to the objects (e.g., a standard meter). To define the behavior of objects in relation to other objects, we must measure their properties in relation to those other objects. Of course, that creates the problem of perception – if the objects have properties that can be measured without senses, and they also possess properties that are observed by the senses, how do we connect these two properties?

The Conceptual Hierarchy

The Indian philosophical answer to this problem is seldom understood. As a result, how this philosophy can impact science is also not completely grasped. Here, I will try to explain that answer in simple terms.

In Indian philosophy, the redness of the apple is an objective property of the apple. Therefore, when we see its redness we are not in illusion. However, the redness of the apple is not self-defined. Rather, redness is a qualification of color. What is color? Does the apple have color? The Indian theory is that color is in fact not a property of the apple, even though redness is. Rather, color is a property of the sense – the eye, in this case.

We can perceive many kinds of colors – red, blue, green, purple, etc. – but we cannot perceive color itself. Color has to be defined as a property of the senses. There are hence two things involved in the perception of red color – the quality of color, and the quality of redness. The quality of redness is the property of the object, but the quality of color is the property of the eye. Redness is a refinement of the idea of color, as color is more abstract than redness. Since we can never associate color with objects (because we can never see color itself), we have two possible options to explain color:

  1. We can say that color is an abstraction over properties of real objects such as red, green, blue, etc. While red, blue, and green can be perceived, the color itself cannot be perceived, and therefore it is a conceptualization that has no reality. Color is like “animal”; we can see individual species of animals, but we can’t see the concept of animal itself. Therefore, just as animal would not be real, color must also be false.
  2. We can say that color can be associated with our senses, and it is, therefore, a property of the senses. The red, blue, and green properties are refinements of color, and therefore they are produced from a more abstract construct – color. Color is therefore real (as senses) and it is logically prior to the objects. The red, blue, green objects must therefore be produced from color – i.e. the sense of seeing.

Western philosophy takes the first position and ends up in the problem of perception. Indian philosophy takes the second position and defines matter in a new way. Now, matter is red, blue, or green, but it is not color. When it is perceived by the senses, then it appears as different types of color. The experience of redness is a combination of two things – the property of color in the senses and the property of redness in the apple.

The observer’s senses are therefore defined in Indian philosophy not as objects, but as the next higher level of conceptual abstractions. Eyes are therefore color, the tongue is taste, the nose is smell, the ear is sound, and skin is touch. The world of objects is redness, saltiness, pungency, shrillness, and heat, and senses are more abstract. The reason we cannot see the eye sense is that an even more abstract sense is needed to see the ability to see.

Objects are Concepts

Western philosophy bundles color and redness into the same category – both are in the observer. But in Indian philosophy, color and red are separate. The color is the senses, which without the redness is just the possibility of color, but not actual color. The redness is in the objects, but it does not exist as color unless someone sees it. The profound revision from this idea is that material objects will be described as red, yellow, sweet, bitter, loud, soft, etc. rather than by physical properties. But the word “red” or “yellow” has no meaning unless in relation to the sense of sight,  although we can apply such words to reality. The reality in this case would objectively be just words whose meanings are only given in relation to the senses. The words are objectively real, but we cannot know their meanings unless we perceive them. The interaction between objects is the interaction between words (or sounds) and it becomes sensations in relation to the senses.

We can describe the objects in relation to other objects, but we cannot give these interactions any meaning. They will just be physical interactions of sound. The meanings appear when these interactions are interpreted by the senses. There is hence no measurement of material objects; there is only observation of material objects. The material world exists as sounds or vibrations in space (and these vibrations are modeled as quantized waves in atomic theory). Ideally, these sounds are objective information about sensation, but they cannot be given a meaning unless observed by some sense.

The Theory of Many Spaces

Color is the dimension and redness is the value. Eyes are the dimensions of a space, and objects are the values on those dimensions. The values cannot be defined without the dimension. The question is therefore not whether I can see the dimension (Can you see space?); the question rather is – Can we define an object without prior defining the dimensions of the space in which it exists? Once we understand the necessity of postulating a space to understand objects, then we must postulate a space of objects, even though we cannot see it. Space is now a concept, not a percept. To perceive this concept, we need another concept more abstract than space. In this case, the dimensions of space are color, taste, smell, touch, and sound. So, to perceive this space, we must have another space in which color, taste, smell, touch, and sound are objects.

In Indian philosophy, this space is called the senses. Its dimensions are various properties perceived by each sense. For example, the eyes can see color, form, and size; the ears can perceive tone, pitch, forms, etc. Therefore, the color sees redness, and the eye sees color. Higher than the senses is the mind, which now sees the senses—i.e. the concept of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. The mind carries object concepts such as a table, chair, house, etc. Effectively, if we had to define these concepts more clearly, then we would have to reduce them to things that can be tasted, touched, smelt, seen, and heard. Once the object concepts have been refined by the senses, they can further be elaborated by properties. For example, these objects will have form and color. Finally, we will convert the definition to a specific form (e.g. square) and a specific color (e.g. red). Meanings are therefore first explained by senses, then by the sensible properties (e.g. color), and then each of these properties is further elaborated into specific values.

The fundamental point of this way of describing perception is that you cannot see your sense of seeing with your eyes! With your eyes you can see colors (red or yellow), but not the ability to see itself. To see the ability to see, you need to develop the mind, which can perceive the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing. In effect, to know that you have senses, you must have a mind that perceives the senses.

However, the mind is itself not fundamental, and can also be perceived by something else. This perception requires the mind to become an object in another space, and this space is called intelligence (buddhi). The intelligence too becomes an object in the space (and sense) called ego (ahamkara), and the ego becomes an object in the space (and sense) called mahattattva or the moral sense. While we cannot see the eye with the eye, we can see the eye with the mind. While we cannot see the mind with the eye and the mind, we can see it with intelligence. While we cannot see the intellect with eye, mind, and intelligence, we can see it with the ego. While we cannot see the ego with the eye, mind, intellect, and ego, we can see it with the moral sense. To sense the senses, we need to develop the mind. To sense the mind, we need to develop the intellect. To sense the intellect, we need to develop the ego. To sense the ego, we need to develop morality. Eventually, this hierarchy terminates when there is something that can sense itself – that sense and object is called consciousness.

Current science describes matter that doesn’t see anything. You cannot say that the meter ‘sees’ length, or that a thermometer ‘feels’ the heat. Hence, matter is not defined as qualities; it is just defined as the movement of a pointer caused by a physical effect.

Gross and Subtle Matter

The world of objects is called “gross” matter, while the world of sensations is called “subtle” matter. Both these kinds of matter have semantic properties. However, even this gross matter cannot be described in science, because material objects cannot have qualities. Current science cannot deal with any perception, because objects cannot describe the power of seeing which is more abstract than any property in the object (dimension vs. value). Current science also cannot deal with qualities in the objects because to do that we have to base science on the sensual perception rather than measurements of physical instruments. The bottom line is that, science doesn’t describe neither subtle nor gross matter.

The Problem of Meaning

I call this the problem of “meaning” and it appears in physics, mathematics, computing, biology, etc. Once you understand this problem and its solution, then you can see that material objects must be thought of as ideas, because otherwise, they could not be representations of the sensations. Once we understand that material objects are symbols, then it is possible to speak about more abstract ideas, which makes it easier to talk about perceptual faculties as abstract ideas. As this study of perception develops, it becomes easier to talk about consciousness, as that entity that can perceive itself while other kinds of material perceptions perceive only other “grosser” forms of perception. And as this study of consciousness develops it becomes easier to talk about God as the distinction between two kinds of consciousness – the first that sees one side of a distinction (e.g., hot vs. cold) and the other that sees (creates, obliterates, or conserves) the distinctions.

Current science is the physical description of matter, and it is false because it lacks semantic properties. We cannot use this science to describe perception, but even more profoundly we cannot use it to describe representation in matter, which creates problems of theoretical incompleteness. This physical description has to evolve into that of “gross” matter; in gross matter there can be meanings. Then the study of gross matter can evolve into the study of subtle matter which is the ability to perceive other kinds of material entities – e.g., senses that see the objects and the mind that sees the senses. As this science develops, we can speak about the non-material, which is that which sees itself.

The discussion about consciousness – and whether or not science deals with this correctly – is too premature. The correct question for science is – what do we mean by information? For instance, in the context of biology, how can one object (e.g., DNA) be a description of another object (e.g., RNA) and produced from it? There is no physical principle by which one object can describe to another object because all objects in modern physics are solely about themselves: we don’t say that a cycle and a clock is a representation of another object; atoms are not representations. Then how can DNA be representations? How can information reduce to chemistry?

Information and Perception

A conceptual description of material objects solves the problem of perception. Material objects are types defined in relation to more abstract types, which are defined in relation to even more abstract types. This constructs, what I often call, a “semantic hierarchical tree”. The meaning of each node in this tree depends on the higher node in the tree. For instance, the meaning of “red” depends on the meaning of “color”, the meaning of “color” depends on the meaning of “sight”, etc. As we rise higher into this hierarchy, we must find what makes our own existence meaningful. That is, what is the deeper node in relation to which my existence can be defined?

As we drop into this hierarchy, the lower nodes provide the truth of the higher nodes. For instance, the truth of the claim that something is an apple lies in expanding that apple into its sensations, which must then be expanded into individual percepts, etc. The details get their meaning in relation to abstracts, and the abstracts get their truth in relation to the details. Eventually, each node in the tree must be both meaningful and true. If the universe becomes both meaningful and true, it would cease to evolve. Indian philosophy, therefore, views truth as unchanging.

The materialist view is that the higher nodes get their meanings in relation to the lower nodes. For instance, color is not real, but defined by abstracting red, blue, and green; similarly, animal is not real but defined by abstracting tiger, goat, and cow. When this approach is extended, the materialist concludes that the self is not real but only an abstraction of the bodily details; God is not meaningful but only a deification of the universe. Only the lowest level facts are true, and everything else is an illusion of these facts. But, when we adopt this approach, we also return back to the problem we began with – if the material facts are the only reality (and these facts make up the observer) then how do these facts become qualities of the perception?

Staying Away from Recursion 

To explain perception, the abstract has to be more real than the contingent: the animal is logically prior to the tiger, cow, and goat; the senses are prior to the objects; the observer is prior to his or her body. Attempts to invert this hierarchy create the following problem – the tiger has to be defined before the animal can be defined, the parts of the tiger’s body have to be defined before the tiger is defined, and so forth. As we go into the details, we hit the problem of perception: for the senses to be defined, the objects (that make up the senses) must be defined, but those objects cannot be defined unless their properties can be defined and the properties are undefined unless the senses are defined.

When the abstract is constructed from the contingent, eventually the most contingent thing cannot be defined because its definition rests on the abstract. The reduction assumes that the world is eventually comprised of independent parts, but as we dig into the parts we find that they are not independent. In fact that they are not even definable, separable, and distinguishable as independent things. They are still individual, but they are not independent. What ties them together? What makes each part behave as if it was aware of the other parts? This problem can only be solved if the whole was defined prior to the parts – i.e. color is defined prior to red, blue, and green; animal is defined prior to the goat, cow, and tiger; the self is defined prior to the bodily constitution.

The reduction of abstract to contingent – under the assumption that the contingent is independent parts that make up the whole – has failed. There are still individuals but they are not independent. A new way of thinking of individuals is needed; this thinking is possible if the more abstract individual is prior to the contingent individual. The universe does not begin in objects that we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear. Rather, sensation is prior to the objects; the mind is prior to sensation; the intelligence is prior to the mind, and all the way up into the hierarchy until we can define something that doesn’t need anything prior. This root of the tree, then, gives meaning to everything else.