The Vedic Perspective on Free Will
My two previous posts explored the flaws in the materialist reduction of free will to rationality and discussed the use of free will in science. The second post concluded by arguing that every conscious experience involves choices, and these may be good or bad―depending on whether they are successful. This post extends the above arguments to incorporate our everyday notions about morality―i.e. good and bad―in the context of science. The key claim is that what we call a “working theory” is not just one that is compatible with all the observable facts, but also one that frees us from the consequences of the choices. A “non-working theory” is one that creates consequences. The difference between a working and a non-working theory is called karma in Vedic philosophy, by which our false notions about reality bind us to the world.
Table of Contents
From Philosophy to Science
The previous two posts argued for the inclusion of choices in our thinking about the world from a philosopher’s standpoint. They showed why the denial of free will is false because science depends upon free will in its method of fact and theory selection since facts underdetermine theories and theories underdetermine facts.
This argument may be adequate for the philosopher of science, but not for the scientist who is looking to formulate a new theory of nature that can be empirically tested. If free will is real, then its presence must be empirically testable. What kinds of theories are needed to formulate such predictions? This post will try to fill that gap.
As argued in the earlier post, choices result in the selection and interpretation of facts. The standard scientific approach to this selection and interpretation is that it might produce a false theory if our selection and interpretation are flawed, but the fact that I possess a flawed theory of nature has no consequences other than my personal illusion. This position in science arises from the rejection of meanings in the natural world. That is, whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is not an objective fact about the world, and merely our interpretation. The theory I formulate about the world, therefore, also has no natural consequences other than my mind being under an illusion.
The rejection of meanings in the world is itself an outcome of the mind-body duality in which all interpretations of the world are in the mind, but not in matter, and since science only measures material objects, this truth has no material consequences. I have separately shown why this separation is a problem in science―it results in incompleteness. For instance, if you are asked to describe the meaning in a book, and you respond by measuring the height, weight, and speed of the book, you will incompletely describe the book. Many books may have the same height, weight, and speed, and measurement of such properties will not decide the meaning. If therefore, science relies on the measurement of physical properties and rejects meanings as being natural properties of the book, then it will also remain predictively incomplete. Common examples of such incompleteness are seen in the proliferation of randomness in probabilities in modern scientific theories―e.g. quantum theory and the theory of evolution.
Science and Meanings
The remedy for this flaw requires a revision of our notions about matter from being meaningless things to meaningful symbols. Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is now an objective fact about the glass, not just our interpretation. However, these meanings are produced only in relation to different observers. This means that one person will objectively consider glass to be half-full, while another person considers it to be half-empty. The property of the glass being half-full or half-empty is, therefore, objective, but not independent of the observer. Objectivity means that ideas have an effect on both the world and my body. And these ideas emerge through relationships.
The key point is that the inclusion of choices in science depends on a revision to our materialist ideology by incorporating yet another category of matter―meaning. The inclusion of meaning leads to the famous mind-body problem, and to resolve that problem, we have to treat even the body as ideas. This means that the glass is also an idea because the properties such as color, form, size, etc. are ideas. All these ideas are also defined in relation to an observer, so whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is not the only property defined through a relationship. Rather, all properties of objects are defined through relations, which means that the glass of water is also an idea.
And yet, there are some ideas that we can perceive by our senses; these include color, form, taste, touch, smell, etc. While other ideas such as glass and water are subtle and can only be perceived by the mind. The mind perceives abstract ideas while the senses perceive contingent ideas. We can thus distinguish between the mind and the body as abstract and contingent ideas respectively, although not as idea and substance.
In Vedic philosophy, these two are called sthula (gross) and sukshma (subtle) matter. The gross matter is detailed ideas which the senses can perceive, while the subtle matter is abstract ideas which the mind (and intellect, ego, and moral sense) perceive. If science remains limited to sthula or gross matter, then there is no compelling reason to think of the observable world as ideas. That in turn means that we must either reject the ideas in the mind or face the mind-body interaction problem. The Vedic solution avoids both these alternatives because even the gross material world is described as ideas.
Choices now enter science as that agent which combines and divides ideas. Like mathematics combines abstract objects, and physics then translates them into real-world operations of combination and division, similarly, when the world is treated as ideas in Vedic philosophy, choices become the agency that combines and divides ideas. Ordering now becomes the act of combining things in a sequence, such that the object ordered earlier in a sequence becomes “higher” and the object ordered later in a sequence becomes “lower”. This process of ordering now constructs a hierarchy.
Cause, Effect, and Consequence
When meanings are objectively present in matter, then numerous questions about meanings―such as the aesthetic in some art, the form in some music, the meaning in a book, the economic value of an object, the goodness of action―will all be scientific questions rather than a matter of our social-cultural-national sensibilities.
It now becomes possible to distinguish between two kinds of causalities.
First, the interaction between material objects―which is traditionally modeled as a cause-effect relation―is now modeled differently as the interaction between meanings rather than as the interaction between things. This results in new kinds of laws that deal in addition and removal of meanings. For example, if you have a statement “I love you”, and you add the word “too” into it, the resulting meaning differs depending on whether the resulting statement is “I too love you” or “I love you too” (as one of many). If you were measuring the physical properties―e.g. mass―then the two additions would appear identical, and the physical theory will therefore incompletely explain the effect. The cause-effect relation with meanings can however be used to explain the difference between “I too love you” and “I love you too”, even though both statements have the same mass.
Second, since the addition of the word “too” creates two different meanings due to two kinds of choices, it is now possible to speak about the consequence of that choice, depending on whether the statement is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. Note that the question of truth arises after the question of meaning has been settled. If the meaning is unknown, then the truth of that meaning cannot be judged. The cause-consequence relation, therefore, follows a semantic formulation of the cause-effect relation.
The cause-effect relation now deals in meanings, while the cause-consequence relation deals in truth. If the world is devoid of meanings, then the cause-effect relation is incompletely understood, and the cause-consequence relation simply cannot be comprehended. The shift from physical properties to meanings, therefore not only modifies the currently known laws of nature but also inducts a new class of laws that were previously unforeseeable. The latter represents the consequences of making a choice, and they apply to the person or individual who makes the choice.
The Law of Karma
The law of karma in Vedic philosophy (and indeed in numerous Eastern religious philosophies) is a moral law that judges a person’s actions. All judgments are based on whether an act is right or wrong, and these judgments are in turn based on comprehending the meanings of actions. For instance, before you can judge whether an act of shooting is right or wrong, you must first comprehend a physical sequence of events as “shooting”, which itself requires associating meanings with facts. If meanings are in our minds, then judgments too must be only in our minds, and not factual. However, when meanings become objective, then their judgments also become objective.
The law of karma is the objective and natural judgment of action because nature is understood as meanings rather than physical things. Such a law has no place in current science because meanings are not objective. In a semantic science, however, meanings become objective, and hence their judgments are also objective. Now, it is possible to speak about the cause-consequence relationship as natural laws.
While karma is often viewed as a moral consequence, it is also a natural consequence although based not on the physical facts, not even based on the meanings of those facts, but on the judgment of whether those facts are true or false. It is noteworthy here to distinguish between facts and truths―both facts and truths exist, but not all existing things are true. E.g., falsities can also exist, and their existence doesn’t make them true.
Understanding the Nature of Karma
Karma is simply the difference between the truth and the fact. This difference is objective and natural, and in Vedic philosophy, for every false action, a subtle material object is created which represents this difference between truth and fact. The living being (the individual who makes the original choices) is carried into new experiences due to this new kind of objective reality, which we can’t measure until it actually manifests into a result. In a sense, it exists, but it cannot be observed until it produces a result. If we deny its existence, then we cannot predict. But we cannot postulate its existence like the existence of a classical material object. Therefore, until this reality is converted into a phenomenon, it exists as a possibility that would be fructified in the future.
The order in which this possibility is converted into a reality is a more complicated topic that I will not discuss here. For the interested reader, I have discussed this topic at length in Moral Materialism. This book also discusses the applications of this idea in the context of modern physics: specifically, the quantum probabilities can be understood as the potential for future results (measurement) created as a consequence of past actions (state preparation). The uniqueness of this view is that the quantum wavefunction is not probabilities although there are potentials. That is, if you have performed good actions, the result is definitely good, but it exists not as real objects, but as potentials to be fructified later. By rejecting probabilities we can complete the scientific description, without actually reducing it to a classical material world (it is noteworthy that many physicists today think that the quantum world becomes classical).
New Realities and Natural Laws
Skeptics often question the existence of the soul. In Vedic philosophy, the soul is evidenced by its ability to make choices, the choices are evidenced by the law of moral responsibility, the moral responsibility is evidenced by the consequences of actions, and these consequences are entailed by the fact that matter is meaning. Therefore, we cannot understand the soul simply as a “mind” that is overlaid on current notions of “matter”. In order to understand the soul, we have to first revise our understanding of matter. When matter is meaning, then actions are choices, which can then be judged, which then produce consequences, and that consequence entails a moral responsibility of action, and that responsibility entails that the choice is real and cannot be reduced to matter. The evidence of the irreducibility of the soul necessitates a semantic view of matter.
The existence of the soul can be scientifically proven through a new kind of scientific law that deals not in cause-effect but in cause-consequence relationships. As noted above, the former deals in meanings, while the latter in truths. Therefore, saying that “I love you too” may have one consequence if it is true, and another one if it is false. The difference between these two utterances, therefore, cannot be modeled purely based upon the meaning of the statement (let alone the physical properties of the statement) but also based upon their truth, and ultimately on the choice involved in it. However, before this truth-based law can be formulated, the meaning-based laws must be understood.
The Scientific Explanation of Life
The consequences of actions remain with the soul and carry that soul forward from one experience to another. Why some people have a good life, while others have a bad one, can be scientifically explained by the idea that these experiences are caused by a reality that cannot be observed until it manifests. Since it can be observed when it manifests, it must be supposed to exist. The only mystery is how it is created, and how it is destroyed.
Karma is created only when our actions are false, and it is destroyed when its results have been reaped. The consequence, in effect, realizes the previous difference between truth and fact, thereby forcing you into a false state to counteract the falsity that you created previously. The law appears to be moral, but it is actually natural.
The scientific evidence for the existence of the soul is the law of karma. This law is two steps removed from current scientific laws which are laws of physical properties. Science must evolve to first incorporate meanings, and then truths. It is when science has taken these two steps, that choices would be seen as not only creating effects but also consequences for the actors. We will then see that these choices are free when they are true, but they bind us into consequences when they are false.
All that we consider mystical today can be scientific, although the concepts, laws, and theories underlying this mystique depend on a new way of thinking.
Empirical Success and Truth
The current denial of free will based on physical laws is flawed because these laws themselves were created by choices of fact selection and ordering. By recognizing these choices, we can update our philosophy of science to explicitly see the role of choices in the creation of scientific theories. However, only when science itself is modified to view meanings in matter can the real (consistent and complete) laws of cause-effect can be formulated. These laws will in turn indicate the cause-consequence laws, which will then present the scientific avenues to confirm a role for free will and the soul.
There can be numerous scientific theories that will appear to “work” upon a chosen set of facts and a chosen type of ordering scheme. But all these theories are not necessarily true, because there will be other theories that explain other facts in different ways, and the combination of these various theories will be logically inconsistent. An example of such theories is quantum theory, general relativity, and thermodynamics, which all “work” with a limited set of facts, but they cannot be combined because combinations create logical contradictions. Such “working” theories are actually false, and would be replaced by a theory in the future that is true―i.e, that is both consistent and complete.
In living by false theories, our choices are not just creating effects, but also consequences. We commonly see the effects of science―e.g., machines and technologies―but we don’t often understand their consequences―e.g. environmental, social, cultural, and personal degradation. A new kind of science is needed that not only predicts the effects better than current science but also frees us of the consequences of these choices.