How is Semantics Related to Religion?
I focus on the problem of meaning in science. A lot of people ask me why. What does semantics have to do with religion? There are many levels at which this question can be answered, which are deeply enmeshed with the nature of the soul and God in Vedic philosophy, although the connection is not as apparent in other religions. The connection between semantics and religion therefore arises through an understanding of Vedic philosophy. This post explores and describes that connection.
Table of Contents
Seven Steps to the Knowledge of God
Before we can understand the nature of God, we have to understand the nature of the self or the soul. The soul is identified as the triumvirate of eternity, knowledge, and happiness. In the material world we seek knowledge and happiness but they are temporary. So, the distinction between matter and soul begins in the eternity of the soul. God becomes relevant as the object of eternal knowledge and happiness, only when the soul is itself eternal. If life is simply the temporary material body—which obtains temporary knowledge and happiness—then there is no need for God. From the standpoint of inquiry, therefore, the question of the eternity of the soul is prior to the existence of God. We can also say that we must know that we are not the body before we can understand the nature of God.
The proof of the eternity of the soul rests on reincarnation. Most people think that reincarnation is the rebirth of the soul in a different form of life in another time and place, but in Vedic philosophy there is rebirth at every moment. The process by which a soul is born into a new body is the same process by which the person changes bodies in this life. For example, if you walk across a room, the same body isn’t moving. Rather, the soul is continually stepping into a new body. Therefore, the process is called changing bodies rather than moving bodies. The term “reincarnation” thus has a broader significance—it is the substitution of the theory of “motion” in modern science; the soul is eternal not just because it is born into new bodies after this body is dead, but because it is continually being born into new bodies. If we have to prove the eternity of the soul, we have to describe how the body is not moving, although the body is changed.
The process of the change of bodies is mediated by karma in Vedic philosophy. Karma is the abilities and opportunities accorded to the soul; of these, the body is the ability to perform some actions, and when this body comes in contact with other bodies it has new opportunities. The soul chooses which abilities to enact and which opportunities to use. So the world exists as a possibility from which the soul selects. But these possibilities are themselves created as a consequence of previous actions—i.e. karma. In order to describe how the body is changing, we have to describe the process of karma creation.
Karma is produced through judgments of right or wrong. If we have to explain karma we have to first explain judgments. Why is this a problem? Judgments have become a problem because we have conceived of matter as particles and waves which do not judge. Some religions therefore add judgments as God’s decisions based on His commandments. But note that we just said that to prove God we need to prove the soul, to prove the soul we need to prove reincarnation, to prove reincarnation we have to prove karma, and to prove karma we need judgments. So we are trying to prove the existence of God and we cannot assume God in that proof—in order to avoid circularity. Instead, we have to prove the reality of judgments in nature itself: nature has to determine right and wrong.
For nature to determine right and wrong there must be contextuality in nature because right and wrong are contextual to time, place, and role of a person. What is right action for a soldier is not the right action for a civilian; what is right action for a parent is not the right action for a child. In other words, we cannot define right and wrong universally. The laws of moral judgment cannot be universal as the laws of modern science are. There has to be something materially unique in the time, place, and role based on which nature can judge. This requires us to discard universality in favor of contextuality and entails a fundamental revision of the notions of material nature in science where all locations in space, all instances in time, and all relationships between individuals are viewed uniformly. Ultimately it means that the laws of modern science based on the uniformity of nature must be false; we have to find new laws of contextuality. The contradiction between religion and science is rooted in the issue of universality vs. contextuality.
Many people have a problem with discarding universality because they imagine that if laws were contextual then there would be as many laws as there are contexts. What good would science be if it could not use the laws to predict every situation because we have to first know the situation before we can understand the laws? This is where it is important to understand the distinction between cause, effect, and consequence. Modern science deals only in cause and effect, and employs universal laws. This universality can continue. However, the moral consequence of the action is not universal. An object never interacts with everything else in the universe—as modern science postulates (e.g. the mass of an object exerts a force on every other object in the universe simultaneously). Rather, an object only interacts with some objects at any given time. Therefore, we can distinguish between the visible outcome of an interaction (cause and effect), and the moral consequence of that interaction caused by a judgment (cause and consequence). For a judgment to be possible, there must be intention in the action. We cannot say that a person is wrong if that person did not know what he was doing and had no intention. This means that even the causal interaction must be intentional: e.g. a particle must be directed toward a destination with the aim and purpose to collide. Classical particles are famously compared to billiard balls, but anyone who has seen a game of billiards knows that the balls are hit intentionally to collide with other balls to put them into pockets. There is foreknowledge and intention even in the collision of billiard balls.
Moral judgments rest on a prior knowledge of reality, and knowledge requires a conceptual ability by which in knowing the apple I don’t become the apple. If we were all automatons which interacted with a limited set of objects without knowing what those objects were there would be contextuality but no judgment. In order to judge a solider, the soldier must be able to distinguish the enemy from the friend. In order to judge a parent, the parent must be able to distinguish their children from other children. In short, knowledge and meaning are properties of the objects involved in limited interactions.
The Seven Steps Summarized
We can recapitulate the above seven steps succinctly as follows:
- To prove the existence of God we have to prove the eternity of the soul
- To prove the eternity of the soul we have to prove the reality of reincarnation
- To prove the truth of reincarnation we have to demonstrate the truth of karma
- To prove the truth of karma we have to provide evidence for judgments
- To prove the reality of judgments we have describe the world contextually
- To prove the reality of contexts we need the reality of knowledge and intention
- To prove the reality of knowledge, we have to imbibe meanings in matter
Contexts appear in the fact that no object interacts with all other objects at once—which has been the cardinal cornerstone of modern science—based on which universal laws of nature were postulated. If all objects don’t interact with each other simultaneously, then the question of which objects interact at any given time itself presents a new problem. The answer to that problem is karma which is produced as a consequence of previous actions. These interactions create an observer’s abilities and interactions and because each interaction is produced individually, we don’t see everything at once.
The succession of our abilities and interactions constitutes the succession of bodies: we are changing bodies with each interaction, and some changes are small while others are large. However, since all interactions are instantiated discretely, all bodies are discrete. Thus, the same body doesn’t move into a new state. Rather, we acquire a new body at each instant. To explain the succession of such bodily experiences—the “trajectory” in space—there must be something that joins the discrete states, and that thing which establishes the continuity cannot be matter because matter is always discrete.
The soul emerges as a necessity in science to establish continuity when matter is always discrete because the soul connects the discrete states into a trajectory or continuous experience. This continuity can never disappear because if it disappears it would be discrete again. In that sense, the soul is a non-material entity. Once the eternity of the soul is understood, then we can speak about why the soul is suffering—which then requires us to add pleasure and pain to the material categories. God becomes a necessity only after the soul’s eternity is established, as the path to eternal happiness. The soul is eternal even without God, but the soul is not eternally happy without God. However, before we can speak about eternal happiness, we have to first speak about the soul’s eternity itself.
Why I Emphasize the Study of Meaning
My emphasis on the study of meaning—as the path toward the knowledge of God—is deeply grounded in the Vedic notion of the world where the soul transmigrates due to karma which is a natural law based on the moral judgment of our actions, and that judgment is impossible without imbibing contextuality, which then necessitates the existence of knowledge, which then demands meanings.
We first know the world cognitively and cognition requires meanings. Once we know the world then we act in the world knowingly such that our actions are liable to judgments. We cannot impose a moral judgment if the actor is ignorant about what he is doing. For example, if a policeman just shoots the bullet and has no idea what that bullet is going to hit, there can be no judgment of the action. In order to judge an action, there has to be foreknowledge about what the person is doing. Therefore meaning is the prerequisite for a moral judgment. The moral judgment is the prerequisite for karma, which is the necessity for transmigration, which it the precondition to understand the eternality of the soul, which is the qualification to realize the reality of God. This gives us the aforementioned hierarchy.
The conflict between religion and science did not begin in the rejection of God. It rather begins in the misperception of matter—as something that exists objectively but is incapable of knowing. This illusion about matter was created by Descartes when he separated mind from matter, and made matter incapable of knowing. Once matter cannot know, then there cannot be judgments on the activities of matter. If we cannot judge matter, then there cannot be morality and contextuality. A variety of false conceptions of nature follow from here—namely that the universe is uniform, that all objects interact with each other simultaneously, that the laws of this interaction are universal, etc.
The misconceptions are therefore not with regard to the soul and God. They are primarily about the nature of material reality. At least, they originate in the study and description of matter. Which is rather fortunate because we can stop the debate about the reality of the soul and God and discuss whether all objects interact with each other always, whether the universe is uniform, and if the laws are universal. Many of these problems are now directly appearing within mainstream science.
The Connection to Modern Science
Contextual interactions are now seen in atomic theory because the “field” through which an object interacts with other objects is quantized, which means that objects no longer interact with all other objects at once; rather, they interact with other objects one by one, and present atomic theory is unable to predict the order of these interactions. In other words, we now have the evidence of contextuality in science but this contextuality stands in contrast to the universalism prevalent in classical physics.
The reason we can never predict the order of interactions using a universal law is because the order is contextual. Now, this contextuality presents deep problems for physicists because they tend to think of reality as quarks, leptons, and photons. What could be contextual about these particles?
The short answer is that the contextuality is in the macroscopic objects, not in the quarks and leptons. In other words, quarks and leptons don’t interact with other quarks and leptons. Rather, the absorber of radiation interacts with the emitter of radiation, quite like our eyes see the apple. The contextuality comes from the whole eye and the whole apple, not from the quarks, leptons, and photons. To express this contextuality, we have to describe the interacting objects as eyes and apples.
If eyes and apples were fully reducible to their constituent parts, then the parts would act independently without any contextuality. At worst we would need to formulate separate rules for the order of quarks, leptons, photons, etc. The fact that we can never formulate any universal laws predicting the order indicates a demise of the idea that apples and eyes are reducible to their constituent parts.
We have to now reinstate the reality of apples and eyes, use that as the context of the quark, lepton, or photon interaction, and the order of events can then be judged based on that context, which then produces the consequence of the quantum of action (called karma), which then produces new contexts. In other words, we have come to the end of the road as far as reductionism is concerned. We have to now imagine how the macroscopic wholes are conceptual objects, though not sensual objects.
The reality of concepts makes knowledge possible. Through that knowledge we know what we are doing. Since we know what we are doing, we can be morally judged by nature’s laws. Once that judgment is performed, a consequence is created. Through that consequence, a new kind of body and interaction is produced. And through such bodies and interactions experiences are created. The soul passes through the succession of these experiences enjoying and suffering but it doesn’t realize that it is different from the material body that keeps changing. Without that realization there is no need for religion. In that sense, the first step is understanding the conceptual ability. Once that issue is solved then we can speak about the successive issues, all the way to the knowledge of God.