The next few chapters in “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology” are dedicated to proving that ideas must exist before things. This is the essence of Vedic understanding of the world but it’s not so obvious to materialists. The book here attempts to highlight often overlooked facts and philosophical developments to prove this point from western point of view.
I’m not sure it’s going to be very convincing to atheists who might simply stick to their guns and insist on their own interpretation of history. They might say our presentation deserves some merit but it’s simply a curiosity because actual studying of history leads to atheism, so it’s only a matter of finding faults with us rather than challenging their own assumptions. They’d say that people with bigger brains than ours and with much better knowledge of western philosophy have concluded differently and so they won’t take us seriously.
That is a problem with any argument relying on western school of thought – it can’t come to different conclusions and if it does it means there’s something seriously wrong with it, it’s just not immediately obvious what.
That’s why we can’t prove God, or Kṛṣṇa, or existence of the soul, or that life can’t come from dead matter, or that Sun is closer to the Earth than the Moon. There needs to be a switch turned on inside people’s souls to accept any of those propositions. We can’t flip it on, it depends on soul’s choice and Supersoul’s help, not on externally heard arguments. That’s why when we preach we should pray to guru and Lord Nityānanda to change the hearts of people we are talking to and to elicit mercy of Lord Caitanya. Whatever we say with our mouths is just fluff, unless there’s mercy of the Lord it won’t change anything.
Devotees, otoh, would look at these arguments that ideas must come before things and accept them as self-obvious. We might not be able to convince atheists but if we convince ourselves that’s already a major achievement in developing our own Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Not as valuable as converting others but still.
In the book it all sprouts from counting, which I talked about in the last post on this topic. In order to count we must be able to do two things first – distinguish the objects and order them as first, second etc. The first one is obvious – if you want to count zebras you must know them from horses or giraffes first. The second one not so much but you must be able to tell the first zebra from the second, too. They should either be slightly different or they should be standing in different places – otherwise you would never know if you counted this particular zebra already or not. In this sense both abilities – to distinguish and to order – become interdependent, and they both must exist before you start any counting.
The book then says that this principle, that you must know things and have some ideas first, is applicable to any act of perception and cognition. To me it looks obvious – if you reading something about a country you’ve never heard of before it is probably explained in the language you already understand – that they have some kind of societal structure, religion, customs etc which are relatable to something you already know. That’s why we can make sense of Mayan human sacrifices, for example.
The challenge to empiricists here is that this means we must be born with some preconceived notions, not as blank states. The book recalls John Locke’s argument that we ARE blank states and our knowledge and ideas gradually emerge from our experiences and the book rejects it here because we need some prior knowledge to process any experience. The book goes for Cant’s principle of synthetic a priori instead which claims that we must posses some non-trivial ideas before we can have meaningful experiences. The example given is that of tone deaf people who can’t be taught music because that’s just the way they are. If we were all blank states than anyone going to musical school must graduate as a genius but the reality is that you must have some music in you before you can be taught it.
At this point the book calls these prior existing ideas “goggles” already. The term was introduces subtly but it will become very prominent later on because our “goggles” determine what we see in the world regardless of what is actually there. So far it’s used in the procession of having an idea of a car, then building an actual car, then recognizing other cars built by others. That last step is “goggles” here – we look at things and we recognize them as something we know already. Goggles make sense of things to US, not determine what they are. That’s why Mayans probably thought that their sacrifices were the pinnacle of society’s evolution while we see them as barbaric. We have different goggles and recognize things differently.
Next question the book asks is how many such goggles are possible and the answer is infinity, which probably means figuratively speaking, but that’s a different subject – Vedic universe is NOT infinite. Anyway, the book says that infinite number of preconceived ideas doesn’t mean each one of us must have them in full. SOMEONE before us must have them and that’s enough. That person would objectivize his idea into a symbol, teach that symbol to us, and from that symbol we can reconstruct the original idea as necessary. That’s how we explain things like democracy – we’ve been taught what it means and now we can apply our knowledge to explain other political systems in democratic terms, how to make China democratic, for example.
The book goes into nature of languages here where words act as symbols of meaningful ideas and we, as receivers, can use these symbols to understand ideas we’ve never heard of before. The existence of actual things, btw, is irrelevant here. Quite often we can understand people’s feelings without having actual empirical experiences ourselves.
Knowing language (mappings of ideas to symbols to experiences) does not mean we know everything in the universe but it’s a method to potentially learn that everything. Once we know the language everything CAN be revealed even though normally it doesn’t. Based on our innate language, something linguists discovered half a century ago, we can learn other languages as well and thus expand our tools in researching the universe. Without that innate language, otoh, we can’t learn anything. To function as human beings we must be born with some kind of goggles first – that’s what the book tries to argue here.
I think it’s useful to ponder the sequence again – creative people convert ideas into things and then these things become goggles for other people who can now recognize these inventions elsewhere. There’s more to this propagation of ideas but it’s enough for today.
PS. One more thing – I don’t think I’ll be able to keep posting an article per day here to keep my usual pace. By the end of this week I should start chemotherapy for a cancer with survival rate of 25%, and it’s the kind of therapy that must be done in a hospital. I don’t know how much energy I will have there and whether I’ll have enough free time. I’m not sure I can even keep up with my chanting. For now my mind is still capable of writing something here and so I’ll keep doing it as my service, but maybe not as often, and maybe I’ll have to change the topic to something more important than understanding Vedic cosmos or making sense of our internal squabbles about women. I might have more pressing matters to attend to but it’s the service to the Lord that defines us as devotees. Everyone can go on about his own situation forever, who cares, there’s no use in it for our mission.