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Ruminations on Vedic Philosophy

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.

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.

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8 thoughts on “How is Semantics Related to Religion?

  1. Thank you for this very well-articulated post. It goes right to the root of ignorance. I see just one minor error. The targets of billiard balls are called pockets, for example; corner pocket or side pocket. In the game of golf, the target may be a hole, for example; the ninth hole or the tenth hole.

  2. I must admit though, I am still not fully understanding what you are saying. In ancient times, people believed that mountains could know and that rivers could know or that the Earth could know. Is this what you are saying when you say that in order for karma to exist, matter must know? Because it sounds like nothing is really unconscious or that creation is one big conscious entity fulfilling the desires of lesser entities. In which case, God is coming into the equation before the evidence of the eternality of man.
    You said: “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.”

    1. Another question comes up if matter can know; how can we say we are eternal, perhaps we are just made of matter which has to power to know?
      You said: “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.”

      1. In Sāńkhya philosophy, mind is also material, just as body. They are called subtle and gross matter. That is different from the Cartesian idea where the mind is equated to the spirit or soul, which is wrong, because the mind is always changing but the soul is (by definition) eternal. The Cartesian concept of the soul did not take into account that our personality is always changing. So equating the mind to spirit contradicts our lived experience. We can say that equating mind with spirit is empirically false.

        When both mind and matter are material, it raises the question: What is matter? How can they interact? The short answer is that both mind and matter are ideas. Nobody has a problem treating the mind as an idea. But people have a problem treating matter as an idea. That’s the scientific component of Sāńkhya where material objects are also treated as ideas, which means that table and chair are ideas, and these ideas are refined through more detailed ideas like color and form, which are then refined by ideas such as black and square, and this refinement continues indefinitely. The difference between mind and matter is therefore a fundamental categorical difference but one of degree. Mind is abstract ideas (table and chair) while the body is detailed ideas (red and square). You can perceive by the senses red and square, but you can’t perceive ideas like table and chair. For that you need the mind. Therefore mind is necessary for cognition but the senses are sufficient for perception. Hence, the mind is also called the sixth sense, for example, in the Bhagavad-gita.

        All these ideas are structured like an inverted tree from abstract to details. Hence the universe is described as a tree whose root is upwards and leaves are downwards. The material universe is therefore not “flat”. It is like a hierarchy in which the senses perceive detailed ideas, the mind perceives more abstract ideas, the intellect perceives even more abstract, and so forth. The soul perceives itself.

        The difference between matter and soul is that matter can represents other objects, but only the soul can represent itself. So you can say that material ideas are only about other things, but the soul’s idea is about itself — or Who am I? That’s a fundamental difference between matter and soul — not as idea and thing, but as ideas about other things vs. ideas about the self. Matter has no idea about itself, but matter can represent and describe other things, which means that the mind can know the world, and the senses can perceive the world, but the soul can perceive its own existence. Matter cannot perceive itself.

        Yes, mountains and rivers are also conscious, just like trees and animals. Their consciousness comes from a soul who is aware of a very large body — e.g. that of mountain or river. Within that body there are many bodies, and those bodies are controlled by different souls. These things become very clear when we view the material world as a tree in which the soul can be situated at the trunks, branches, or leaves.

        1. Thanks for responding, now I understand you a little better even though I am not 100% in agreement. I agree with Bhagavad Gita that the mind is the sixth sense and therefore a tool. I think you give the tool too much credit. Without tools, a technician can’t function but neither can tools function without the technician. Perhaps it just a semantic difference of opinion.

  3. “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.”
    Can you please clarify this – is ignorance or lack of awareness of the consequence a plausible defense of innocence. Is it a simplified assumption or is there more to this…

    1. You’re right, the issue is complicated. For instance, if a person is influenced by insanity, or was sleepwalking, the crime would be committed without foreknowledge. Similarly, when the criminal is a minor, there is a natural leniency because the child is not expected to be fully aware. Similarly, there are other cases in which a person might be an adult but might not know how to read an instruction, and hence unaware of the proper behavior.

      When Maharaja Dasarath killed Shravan kumar thinking that he was hunting a deer, his act was performed under ignorance. There is natural punishment, even if performed inadvertently, but the crime is lesser. Similarly, the crime is higher when performed by a person with a higher stature in society because they are expected to be more responsible. A minor error by a superior person has bigger consequences than for a person in a lesser position.

      However, the above statement should be read in light of the previous two sentences and not in isolation. “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.” The key point is that if knowledge were itself impossible then there could be no judgments. We cannot judge without knowing, and knowing requires meaning.

      So, the statement should not be read as an excuse for ignorance, because even under ignorance there is punishment, but it is lesser. But if there were absolutely no knowledge or awareness of right or wrong (because it is impossible to know) then there could be no judgment in principle. Therefore, knowing is a precondition to judging in principle. In this case, as you point out, knowing itself is a moral responsibility and the person can be penalized for not knowing — i.e. not acquiring knowledge, but the punishment should be lesser.

      Unfortunately, since the moral laws are universalized, and because it is very hard to prove that one doesn’t know, it is easier for lawmakers to say that “not knowing is not an excuse”. But practically speaking, even in case of serious crimes, insanity plea is a legitimate defense for a criminal.

      Hence, if we took this argument to its logical limit, and said that nobody actually knows anything, then there could be no judgment. And that’s the main point here — namely, that to judge at all one must prior know. Since we can know to greater and lesser degrees, doing something with full knowledge is a greater crime than doing the same thing with lesser knowledge.

      However, there is an important difference between genuine not knowing, and a deliberate non-acceptance of the knowledge because we don’t like the truth. We can say there is a difference between “not knowing” and “not believing”. The latter qualifies for full punishment and not ignorance.

      When a person doesn’t genuinely know, the crime is equally a responsibility of the person who was supposed to educate the person — e.g. parents not educating the child properly are implicated by their children’s actions, and similarly teachers or government that don’t educate their students or citizens are responsible for what happens under their control. Ultimately, you can say that ignorance never goes scot free, but the responsibility is distributed to everyone who is responsible for that ignorance — even those who may not have committed the crime itself, but did not do enough to remove that ignorance when it was their duty and responsibility to do so.

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