Śrila Prabhupāda often talked about the four defects of souls “conditioned” by the material energy—(a) imperfect senses, (b) illusions, (c) committing mistakes, and (d) cheating propensity. He then explained that humans are incapable of acquiring perfect knowledge due to these four defects. Finally, he stated that the Vedic texts are produced by persons free of these four defects, therefore, they constitute perfect knowledge. This simple argument for placing trust in Vedic texts is generally neglected while discussing epistemology or the method of science, how the epistemology or the method of science suffers from the same four defects as humans, and hence it cannot provide the truth.
In this post, I will connect the four human defects to the epistemological and methodological problems of science that make knowledge impossible. We will see how the four human defects appear in science and discuss their examples. These human defects have led science astray despite thousands of people working for centuries and cross-validating each other—because every human has the same defects and science as a human activity of discovering the truth by flawed individuals is always flawed. We will talk about the symptoms of the absence of these defects, and how they are progressively eliminated.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Description of Four Defects
- 2 The Necessity of Revelation
- 3 The Principles of Revealed Epistemology
- 4 The Critique of Modern Science
- 5 Contextualizing the Four Steps
- 6 Why Scoffing at Revelation is Pointless
- 7 Illustration of False Modeling
- 8 Falsification Precedes Verification
- 9 Four Defects Summarize Epistemology
- 10 Curing the Four Human Defects
The Description of Four Defects
The concept of “truth” is not easy, due to two empirical problems—(a) the presence of evidence is not evidence of presence, and (b) the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If I hallucinate, there is presence of evidence, but it is not evidence of presence, since I’m hallucinating. Similarly, if I’m blind, there is absence of evidence, but that is not evidence of absence, due to my blindness. I have to prove that if I don’t see, then I am not blind (i.e., not incapable of perceiving the truth), and if I see then I am not hallucinating (i.e., creating my perceptions) before I can infer presence or absence as truth.
A different set of problems exist with reasoning—(a) a working theory is not necessarily true because I may have an oversimplified or overcomplicated theory that works for some cases, and the data that falsifies it may not be available to me, and (b) despite the availability of contravening data, I might continue upholding a false theory as I don’t want to acknowledge the failure.
These four flaws are described in Vedic texts as—(a) illusions such as hallucinations, (b) imperfect senses such as blindness, (c) committing mistakes of misconceiving reality during speculation, and (d) cheating propensity.
- Instruments can self-create detections, which are just like hallucinations. We eliminate these hallucinations by repeating experiments. But rare occurrences are not repeatable. Should we treat a rare occurrence as a hallucination or a fact that occurs rarely? We can treat some hallucinations as rarely occurring facts, and some rarely occurring facts as a hallucination.
- We don’t know if we have a complete set of necessary and sufficient properties. If some necessary properties are missing, then we will not notice failures of a theory because we are not measuring a necessary property. If we have more than necessary properties, then our picture of reality would be erroneous because it is incorporating unnecessary properties in the theory.
- The data that falsifies a theory may not be always available because we consider that data to be outside the domain of the current study. Since the scope of a theory is arbitrary—i.e., the scope can be expanded or contracted—therefore, we don’t know whether a theory is true or false because the assumptions we make in the theory are suited for one type of phenomenon and not others.
- When a theory is falsified, it is not easily rejected either due to a lack of alternatives or because incentives are attached to maintaining the status quo. Those who have invested time, money, and effort in creating a theory, try to solve a problem by making minor modifications. They try to magnify the importance of successes and diminish the importance of failures.
All four human defects exist in the scientific method, but they are either ignored or their importance is minimized. Due to these flaws, there is no way to discover the complete truth using the processes of reasoning and observation.
The Necessity of Revelation
Truth has to be revealed for us to know it. A revealed truth can be verified partially within the scope of my limited perception. Everything in the revealed text cannot be verified unless my perceptual capacity is enhanced. A revealed text is supposed to give us the truth, which we can verify, and while everything may not be currently verifiable, what is verifiable must never be falsified.
Trust is established if we can verify some claims, there is a reasonable path to verify the currently unverified claims, and none of the verifiable claims are falsified. Then, we “trust but verify” the text on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. Trust is destroyed if we can falsify some verifiable claim and if claims are not verifiable. If enough of these claims have been falsified, then we have to operate on the inverse principle of “guilty until proven innocent”.
We can consider a text to be of divine origin if all its claims are verifiable, there is a reasonable possibility of verifying the presently unverified claims, and none of the verifiable claims have been falsified. We must treat a text to be of human origin if its verifiable claims are falsified or the unverified claims are not reasonably verifiable. Trust is not blind faith if it is based on verification, high chances of verification, and the absence of falsification. The faith grows incrementally as we verify more claims and no claim is falsified.
The Principles of Revealed Epistemology
Whatever we call “Vedic epistemology” is rooted in the principles that
- There are four defects commonly found in most humans,
- They make an empirical and rational discovery of truth impossible,
- Therefore, revelation is necessary to know the truth,
- Revelation is trusted if some of it is verified and nothing is falsified,
- Progressively more and more of its claims can be verified.
When we contrast Vedic philosophy against modern science, we demonstrate (a) why existing evidence falsifies current scientific theories, (b) why Vedic philosophy is not falsified by the evidence, (c) how this philosophy can be used to build better scientific theories, and (d) how this application establishes trust in the Vedic texts—that some claims are currently verified and no claims are currently falsified. If we don’t show that existing evidence falsifies current scientific theories, then there would be no need for an alternative. If we don’t show why Vedic philosophy is not falsified by current evidence, there would be no difference between Vedic texts and other scriptures. If we don’t show why this philosophy can be used to build better scientific theories, the hopes for future verification will not exist. Without the above three, there will be no trust in the Vedic texts to pursue further verification of unverified claims.
The Critique of Modern Science
The critique of modern science is necessary but not sufficient because the falsification of science isn’t the verification of Vedic texts. Similarly, the verification of Vedic texts makes sense only if these texts are not falsified by current evidence and the potential for verifying claims exists in the future. This is how we trust Vedic texts although everything is not immediately verified.
There are many kinds of scientific critiques, some of which are more fundamental than others. A damaging critique is that which questions the fundamental aspects of a theory and a cosmetic critique is that which questions the superficial aspects of a theory. We can critique modern science to the most fundamental principle—binary logic—and its assumption of “one thing is only one thing” because each thing is the potential for many things, some of which are hidden when others are revealed at different times, places, and relations to other things. Binary logic is the foundation for separability—i.e., either one thing is itself or something else and it cannot be both itself and something else. Binary logic is false because reality is entangled and separability is false.
Science has axiomatized separability and reductionism because they are entailed by binary logic and don’t have to be proved separately. For instance, under binary logic, the whole and parts must either be separable things or they must be identical things due to the principle of excluded middle. If the whole and its parts are neither separable nor identical to each other, then binary logic is broken. Once binary logic fails, we don’t have a system of reasoning. Without separability, we lose the capacity to count things. Without counting, we don’t have numbers, space, time, objects, or mathematical laws.
If the most fundamental idea at the foundation of science collapses, then the rest of the edifice collapses. We don’t have to critique a structure on its surface if we can critique its foundation. We may feel embarrassed by this failure. After all, this edifice has been created over centuries by many people from all parts of the world. How can all of them go wrong over such a long period of time?
The answer is that there are four fundamental human defects that make any empirical or rational discovery impossible. Any humanly constructed knowledge will fail due to these four fundamental defects because (a) we don’t have all the data before we make a theory nor the capacity to collect all possible data, (b) much of the data we collect contains errors due to faulty measuring instruments, (c) we create simplifying assumptions to process the data we have, and (d) if we get some success we ignore the outliers, postpone their reconciliation to the future until we can no longer ignore it.
Contextualizing the Four Steps
We can show that Vedic philosophy is not disproven by the available evidence, so it is better than modern science. We can show that the evidence is entailed by an alternative conception of reality. That is not a verification because we can always suspect the possibility of alternative explanations, but it is already better than other religious scriptures and scientific theories that are being falsified by evidence. An unverified claim is not equal to a falsified claim. If something is not falsified by evidence, and it is a plausible explanation of the evidence, then we have (a) rejected the cheating propensity of keeping an ideology despite its falsification and (b) the propensity to commit speculative mistakes because there is no evidence of a mistake if a claim hasn’t been falsified.
Overcoming the other two defects—(a) illusions, and (b) imperfect senses—requires the development of the perceptual capacity to stop seeing the illusion and to see what we don’t see right now. They pertain to overcoming the two flaws of empiricism noted above. Conversely, by understanding the critique of modern science and how Vedic philosophy is free of these problems, we overcome the two flaws of rationalism—(a) cheating propensity, and (b) committing the mistakes of postulating falsifiable axioms—noted above.
We can trust Vedic texts because they are not falsified by the evidence unlike modern science, they correctly predict and explain the available evidence, but we cannot call them verified truths until we eliminate alternatives through perceptual enhancement that destroys illusory perceptions and creates the capacity to perceive the truth. The truth in the Vedic texts is established rationally, but verification by observation is still pending.
Why Scoffing at Revelation is Pointless
Discussions on Vedic epistemology are misunderstood because when we say that verification requires perceptual development, people scoff. They don’t know that existing evidence has already falsified their scientific and religious claims so they don’t have any rational reason to place trust in those places. Scoffing at something that is not yet verified is pointless if everything else you have is already falsified. Scoffing at something because we set a higher bar for truth—i.e., verification by observation, not merely the absence of falsification, as is the case in science—is pointless because, by the low bar for truth set by science, the Vedic texts are already true since they are not falsified.
This is not a question of trusting one source vs. another. There is no other source in which you can put trust at present because all their claims have been falsified by evidence within the current limited scope of observation. If you keep trusting them, you are putting your trust in something already disproven. But if you trust us, we can assure you that (a) nothing has been falsified, (b) current evidence is predicted and explained, and (c) we only insist on verification to eliminate any other alternative explanation.
Empiricism is rooted in the Lockean tabula rasa or “blank slate” consciousness in which what we see is the result of external impressions. This is false because we can dream or hallucinate what we have never seen before. Due to imperfect senses, we may not see all that exists. The philosophy of rationalism is rooted in the Aristotelian idea of logical proof indicating a universal truth, but “proof” is itself based on assuming that one thing is always one thing—patently falsified when one thing is many things that are true not universally but contextually. Rationalism also rests on axiomatizations without proof—the axioms we use in reasoning are definitionally believed to be true without any proof.
The scientific method was constructed by disregarding or underestimating the four human defects. The methods of science inherit all the defects of humans because (a) instruments may not measure correctly, (b) instruments may not measure everything, (c) mathematical reasoning cannot capture a reality that is many things at once and yet it becomes one of those things contextually, and (d) we refuse to accept that human defects also exist in the human scientific method despite its failures. The defects of science are not new. They are the defects of humans that creep into anything created by humans. The answer to these defects is knowledge given by those who don’t have these defects.
Illustration of False Modeling
A simple example of misperception and misconception is modeling a hammer as a drill. A hammer can work as a suboptimal drill. Since it works, although suboptimally, you can say that my modeling of a hammer as a drill is correct—after all, I am able to drill some holes based on my model. This is the problem with the pragmatic conception of truth—the truth always works and it works perfectly, but what works is not necessarily true, because it is working suboptimally although we don’t know that unless we find an optimal drill that drills much better holes. Then, if we additionally discover that this thing is optimally used as a hammer, we can say that this is indeed a hammer and not a drill. Knowing that something is a hammer requires us to know other things that are ideal drills and that this thing is best described as a hammer.
Pragmatic claims are hard to falsify because we can treat a hammer as a drill, not drill all possible holes, the holes we drill consume more effort, but because you can drill some holes even with a hammer, therefore, you never search for the ideal drill and claim that the hammer is the drill because by modeling it as a drill we can get suboptimal pragmatic successes in drilling some holes.
The rational proof of incompleteness in science is the indirect result that indicates the modeling of a hammer as a drill because we cannot drill all the possible types of holes using a hammer. The failure of the hammer to drill all possible holes is incompleteness. The holes you can drill with a hammer are also drilled suboptimally. However, since you can drill some holes with a hammer, although suboptimally, you can also refuse to accept the possibility of an ideal drill. Thereby, science can forever continue to drill holes with hammers.
Falsification Precedes Verification
The critique of science that involves demonstrating its failure in explaining evidence is the proof of (a) incompleteness, and (b) the likelihood that we are modeling the hammer as a drill—it can drill some holes but not all holes. We still don’t know if there is an ideal drill and that the thing we are modeling as a drill should be modeled as a hammer, and its use should be restricted to hitting nails, and nothing more. To be a better tool, we have to show that the ideal drill can also hammer nails better. You may still not have seen an ideal drill in your entire life, but you can imagine its possibility. You then go in search of the drill. When you find it, the postulate of a drill is completely verified.
The fact is that you will never go in search of a drill unless we show that this hammer that you equate to a drill is incapable of drilling many holes. Incompleteness is indirect falsification—we are showing the hammer is not working as a drill should, so it is not a drill—but those accustomed to calling the hammer a drill like to obfuscate the issue: Maybe we cannot drill all holes, but we will keep calling it a drill. This is what we call “cheating propensity”. It is the rationalization of speculative mistakes as not being too bad because we can drill some holes even with a hammer and we cannot drill anything without it.
Four Defects Summarize Epistemology
The template of four faults makes it easy to remember the problems of the epistemology as the method of discovery, why these flaws necessitate revelation, why revelation made by a person free of human flaws is never falsified by the evidence, it explains why the falsifying evidence is merely the evidence that we have misconceived or misperceived reality, what that reality is, and why to verify its existence, we must go in search for something we cannot see at present, at which point can replace our current concepts with much better concepts. Thereafter, the ignorant men may keep using hammers to drill a few holes, but the intelligent men will always use a drill to efficiently hammer nails and drill holes. They will no longer have any use for the hammer.
All that we currently call science and technology is a hammer. It is suboptimally used to drill some holes. It cannot drill all holes, which is its incompleteness. But if we can rise to the level of seeing the failure as a misconception of calling a hammer a drill, replace it with a drill, then the ignorant men can keep using the hammer to drill some holes, but the intelligent men will replace the hammers with drills. The process of realizing the flaws of the current science and technology involves four steps—(a) seeing the incompleteness of what we call the “drill”, (b) inferring it as implying that what we call a “drill” is actually not a drill, (c) realizing that what I called a drill is just a hammer, and (d) finding the drill that replaces the hammer. The first two are rational falsification and the last two are empirical verification. You cannot go to verification without falsification. So, falsification is the prior and preliminary step.
Curing the Four Human Defects
This four-step process cures the four defects. When we accept the incompleteness of current science and technology, then we have rejected the cheating propensity. When we accept that this incompleteness implies that we have fundamentally misconstrued reality, then we have rejected the tendency to use speculation as a way to know the truth because it can lead us to mistakes that last for centuries. When we can accept that whatever I called a drill before is just a hammer, then we have gotten out of the illusion of thinking that science is giving us some truth about the nature of reality. And when we see that the thing we use to hammer better is a drill, then we have cured imperfect senses.
Therefore, when we say that the truth is ultimately known by curing the imperfection in our perceptual capacity, we are talking about the fourth step of complete verification. It involves the prior step of falsification of the current idea due to incompleteness, the realization that reality cannot be known speculatively because we oversimplify reality to match (a) hallucinations or (b) blindness, rejecting the axioms that make current science incomplete due to binary logic, separability, and reduction, and overcoming these flaws in a new conception that is at least tentatively the complete conception of reality. We still don’t know if this conception is indeed the truth unless we perceive it. But we know that it is better than current science because it hasn’t been falsified, it predicts the falsifying evidence and obviates reasons for falsification.
This is how we build trust. After that, we undergo the process of perceptual development to perceive the truth. If you don’t perceive the truth, you still don’t have a better truth to rely on. Hence, you can either claim the absence of any truth, or you try to develop your perception to see what is rationally indicated to be the truth. The understanding of these four defects gives us a useful template by which we can explain the current problems and how they can be progressively overcome to realize the complete and perfect truth.