I’m still on “common sense” chapters of “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”. It was supposed to be an introduction to Sāṅkhya now but Dalela gets to it very slowly. Maybe he dwells on these things because he wants to understand them better himself, maybe it truly is for our benefit so that we grasped them firmly before moving on – a lot of it looks repetitive.
In any case, it’s important to get the sequence – first we have ideas, then we convert them into things, then from our creation we develop theories (or symbols), and then these symbols become our goggles through which we look at the world. One American general once famously said: “If all you have is a hammer then every problem starts looking like a nail”. That’s what our goggles are. Then we get new ideas to advance our theories and so we apply this process again and again indefinitely.
The world around us, therefore, is an embodiment of ideas, embodiment of symbols. Even our words are physical objects, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hear them. Words are messages conveying meanings. These messages can be sent in other physical forms, too – like a flower or a scented envelope. The book insists that everything we perceive is messages and embodiment of symbols, embodiment of ideas.
Meanings, however, are not messages, they exist a priori, it’s important to remember that, too. When we receive a message we need two things to decode it – we must know the meaning and we must know the language of decoding. By “meaning” the book means pre-existing ideas that allow you to comprehend the message, otherwise it would be gibberish. You need to know what horses are before you can understand a message that there are five horse riders coming your way – that sort of thing.
The language through which we understand these messages is our goggles. If the source and the recipient wear the same goggles they can understand each other perfectly, otherwise five different people would read the same message differently – according to their different goggles. I’m not talking about “language” as strictly English or German but rather our theories about how the world works so that even speakers of English can understand same messages in opposite ways.
To understand every idea in the world we only need to know the language, but to know the language we must have some ideas, too – they’d be much simpler, though. This all means that the fundamental ingredients of the world are not things but ideas, memes and grammar of the language. The book says that this concept is known as semiotics and it’s popular in continental Europe. It’s common sense, really, but, apparently, not that common.
Now I suppose we can accept that this is how the world works but it doesn’t say anything about the starting point yet, nor does it say anything whether the messages we hear are true. We might have a perfect understanding of what we hear on TV but it doesn’t mean that what they say is true. How can we know what is true and what is false then?
The book offers two choices – we can look for internal consistency of the argument and judge it true, but that would depend on the “trueness” of the underlying axioms. Secondly, we can empirically test the statement – like science loves to do, but we can’t test if all the facts conform with the statement ever, and from the same science we know that for any theory there must be some facts that do not fit it. Or, if we look at two statements, they might be consistent with each other but there might be other statements which contradict them but which we haven’t yet encountered.
The book states that it’s a fundamentally unsolvable problem because it depends on unquestionable axioms that we accept a priori, and then it devotes a chapter to arguing that truth itself must be accepted a priori, too. If all the politicians say the same thing it would be true that they said it and all their statements would be consistent but our perception of it would depend on whether we believe them or not in the first place. We must have that initial trust to believe in everything that follows.
The book compares this to the previously discussed primacy of meanings – “truth”, “trust” and “ideas” must exist first. It uses the Descartes example in an interesting way. Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am”, and then he said many other things that followed from that postulate. They were true when he was alive, but are they true now? He doesn’t “think” anymore so they must be false, right?
Just as with Descartes, everyone’s knowledge must collapse to some fundamental axioms, a fundamental theory of the world. It could be “I think”, it could be “aham brahmasmi”, it could be “neti neti”, but it should be “vāsudevaḥ sarvam iti”, everything else will eventually end in failure. We must know it for real, too, to finally become devotees.
How can we know if our assumptions are true is another question. What if our friends tell us the opposite? Should we stick with our guns? What if we have a business idea that fails again and again no matter what we try? An average millionaire succeeds on the twentieth attempt, I heard. On one hand, it’s admirable to follow your path no matter the opposition and the rewards can be great. On the other hand, it could be just stubbornness and you’ll end up as a failure anyway. There’s a chapter for this problem as well.
How do we actually choose which axioms are correct? On what basis? Obviously there must be some confirmation available to us first. Our initial theory must explain some empirical facts to make us believe in it. No theory can explain all the facts, however. Communism explained a great deal to those who followed it and they even build a huge empire spanning half the world on this theory, but it didn’t explain actual supermarkets and all the food that was there but wasn’t supposed to be according to communist theory.
Communism was internally consistent but it wasn’t complete, and if we mix it with capitalism then we might achieve completeness but lose consistency. This contradiction between completeness and consistency is a fundamental problem for ALL the theories out there. The book goes into some detail on this point but essentially it’s this – we have quantum mechanics to explain sub-atomic world, we have thermodynamics to explain macroscopic objects, and we have relativity to explain the universe. Each of these theories are internally consistent but they are incomplete because they don’t work outside their boundaries. And we can’t combine them together either because they are mutually incompatible.
This doesn’t explain our initial choice what to believe, however. Perhaps this chapter wasn’t what it was advertised to be, but it still makes sense. We can put this question before atheists as well – what is the source of their initial beliefs? What is the source of their scientific theories? Are these sources reliable and do they hold true at all times? If they don’t hold true at all times then they must be false or they must be incomplete. Why do they insist on being correct then? I’m not sure it would be a fruitful discussion but this approach is something we can explore on our own – how to successfully challenge atheistic assumptions and what these assumptions are in the first place.
Anyway, it’s enough for today. Can’t wait when I’ll get to actual sāṅkhya. Next chapter should get me into it already.