Vanity thought #1744. VC – the world is a message

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.

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3 comments on “Vanity thought #1744. VC – the world is a message

  1. On the last paragraphs that you treat here, about atheistic assumptions, Dalela has written this book Uncommon Wisdom: Faultlines in the Foundations of Atheism. The first part contains a lot of Vedic philosophy, but towards the end he has some sections about atheist assumptions.There he lists the following axioms they that are usually found in atheistic discourse. Unless we address these issues point blank, a conversation with an atheist would put devotees at a disadvantage because the atheists already kind of assume you agree with them because these beliefes are very popular in “intellectual circles”. The axioms are:
    -material reductionism
    -scientific determinism
    -biological evolution
    -cognitive relativism
    -causality is by forces
    -the universe is flat
    -morality is belief

  2. Indeed. A preview of the arguments in the quotes below:

    **Material Reductionism**

    “New Atheism claims that we can derive universals from material objects, and science with its mathematical theories of nature would eventually explain how the world can be rational without necessitating God. This position is logically inconsistent. There is no consistent and complete theory of nature if universals are derived from objects; incompleteness manifests in the idea of randomness in nature, leaving theories predictively incomplete.

    However, if we try to solve the problem of universals in a way that this problem can be solved, we end up not just with universals in another world of ideas, but a hierarchy of concepts that include many subtle forms of existence that cannot be sensed as sensations because they are more abstract than the senses. Such forms of existence cannot be seen, tasted, touched, smelt and heard, although they must exist if the world of sensations has to exist. This categorical hierarchy ends in a supreme consciousness which becomes the root of the hierarchical tree of the universe. The root stands independent of the universe, and yet the universe is an expansion from that root. The root can be understood rationally, spoken of in science, but cannot be perceived by the senses, because it is far more abstract that the senses by which we perceive sensations. In that respect, God and soul can never be seen, tasted, touched, smelt or heard. But, this is also the manner in which meanings cannot be perceived by the senses, even though they exist. God and soul are not the only things to transcend material objects; senses, mind, intellect, ego, morality and qualia too transcend material objects. In so far as the latter constitute scientific problems, they are outside current science. They don’t have to be outside science forever; but, a science that incorporates these abstract concepts would have to contend with the question: How can I perceive such realities? The answer would necessitate the development of new forms of perception.”

    **Scientific Determinism**

    “Many atheists believe that science is deterministic and that deter-minism in nature entails there is no free will. If the free will is unreal, then there cannot be morality, or at least no moral judgment. And if there is no moral judgment then a God who performs such a judgment would be unnecessary. This line or argument is flawed at so many levels, that I would first list them here, before describing them in detail in the following paragraphs. First, current science is not deterministic; if someone isn’t convinced then then he or she ought to study the problems of indeterminism in science before moving further . Second, we should aim for natural determinism but that goal is unattainable without incorporating meanings. Third, free will is not the same as freedom; the latter means we can change the functioning of our body and mind while the former means that we can change the body and mind. Fourth, moral judgments are not connected to God; rather morality is natural process of discovering the truth necessitated by an encounter with phenomena which are needed to improve the theory. If morality did not exist, then there would be no test for scientific completeness: we could not know if a true theory is true and that it would never be falsified in future.”

    **Biological Evolution**

    “Evolution has exerted a greater influence on New Atheism than materialism (opposed to the notion that ideas are real) and determinism (opposed to the claim that we have free will). Evolution depends on the ideas of random mutation and natural selection, both of which are independently problematic. Random mutation is problematic because it undermines scientific completeness; we believe that things random only if we are unable to predict them. But, if things were truly that random, then this theory would be unable to predict them too. What is the true value of such a theory that makes no predictions? For me, this is not a rhetorical issue, because I believe that the randomness is a shortcoming of the current physical description and it would be overcome in a semantic description. Furthermore, the idea of natural selection cannot be defined unless the boundary between an organism and its environment is defined, and the physical basis for assuming such boundaries does not exist. The physical basis of boundaries exists only at the level of individual objects in current physics, and not at the level of object collections; collection boundaries are assumed, without a physical basis.”

    **Cognitive Realism**

    “Religions have greatly aided the rise of Atheism by being unable to recognize that what matters in the end is the truth rather than be-lief. While it may often be necessary to believe in some ideas at the start, and most knowledge begins in belief in the authority of the teacher, eventually you must find ways to validate that knowledge. How do we validate the beliefs? Religions don’t seem to make the transition from belief to truth. If two religions disagree on some-thing—for instance whether the soul transmigrates or not—the disagreement is never put to a test of truth. Perhaps some of these questions are not easy to verify—can we then verify other truths which are logically connected to those claims? As Quine has argued, knowledge is an interconnected web of ideas that touches experi-ences only at the periphery; it may not be easy to verify every pos-sible belief, although it should be possible to validate at least the periphery of that belief system. This periphery corresponds to the leaves of the semantic tree, and the inability to verify the core cor-responds to the difficulty in perceiving the roots. The onus lies on the believer that if the core of the belief system cannot be validated, at least its edges must be validated. Conflict at the edges is not an innocuous problem; it points to difficulties in the truth of the core itself. And yet, religions haven’t rigorously pursued the truth, not only in the sense of discovery but also in the sense of validation.
    The modern world provides tacit support for the separation between truth and belief. The democratic societies profess the free-dom to practice any kind of religion, in as much as they permit the choice of sexuality, the car you drive, or the partner you marry. Secularism has convinced everyone that religion is a personal matter. So personal, in fact, that no one has a right to challenge your convictions. There is hence a public life and a private life; the public life is controlled by the state and subject to scientific inquiry, but the pri-vate life is not. We can ask questions about truth in the public sphere but we cannot in the private sphere. There is only one truth in the public world and we are all supposed to accept that, but there are as many truths in the private world as there are people, and it is not a crime to not justify the truth of what you actually believe in. This separation between truth and belief is so entrenched that attempts to unseat them would be viewed as violating the personal freedom, contradictory to the democratic principles of society.”

    **Causality**

    “The dimension of a space cannot be understood from within the space, although we can measure the values of objects against that dimension. To know the dimension, we must enter another deeper space in which this dimension is an object. Accordingly, if objects in the deeper space are not manifested in the shallower space, their presence cannot be detected from the shallower space. The problem of physical causality is that we try to measure every-thing in terms of sensations, even though we cannot describe the senses in terms of sensations, because the senses are the dimen-sions using which the sensations are differentiated. These dimen-sions can be perceived through a deeper form of perception in a more abstract space where the senses will become objects. The se-mantic causal view essentially states that there are interactions not just between objects in a fixed space, but even between the dimen-sions of various spaces, which become objects in a deeper space. The interaction between dimensions will have effects on the objects which can be measured, but the cause of these effects is not in that space. In that specific sense, there can be effects whose causes lie outside the specific type of space that we are using to measure.
    Such cause-effect relationships cannot be modeled in current science. They will appear as miracles, even though they are not miracles; they just happen to be effected by deeper forms of material reality which requires deeper forms of perception. In Vedic philosophy, the states of the mind (and other subtle matter) can be used to control and change the bodily states. To effect such changes, the experimenter must have developed advanced forms of perception in which he can perceive abstract objects such as color, taste, touch, smell and sound. By manipulating these objects, the experimenter would modify the form of the space-time ‘container’ in which experiment is being carried out and the changes would be detected by the measurement, but the causal origin of these changes cannot be understood. To understand that origin, one must step into deeper spaces. What many religions call miracles, therefore, are deeper forms of causality in Vedic philosophy. These causal effects appear as miracles because matter is structured into a hierarchy of types. The subtle forms can effect the gross forms, and the effect can be measured using gross measurement but the cause cannot be detected by such measurement. These effects therefore appear as miracles. The demystification of miracles needs a different science.”

    **The Universe is Flat**

    “Going to America without giving up the Indian identity is like changing the blog name from indian.blogs.acme.com to ameri-can.blogs.acme.com. There is a change, but it is not substantial. Similarly, going to outer space, in the semantic hierarchical space while remaining in the human identity is not a change in the location; we have only shifted to another part of earth, where the earth is defined as the human identity, mindset and culture on the earth. It is important to note that in a hierarchical naming convention (e.g. using dotted-decimal notation), there is a full space of numbers or names available at each level of the hierarchy (e.g., after each dot). For instance, if you address is defined hierarchically as 10.24.87.92, and you happen to move in the last space (change the last digits), you will still remain attached to the hierarchical ‘subnet’. Truly changing the network entails a change in the successive hierarchical digits of the address, not just the last digits of the current subnetwork.
    At each level of the hierarchy, the entire set of names or num-bers are available for naming an object, but their meanings are not quite the same. Thus if we go to the moon in the space shuttle, our address has become moon at the physical level, but it remains earth at the mental level. If we find this part of the universe barren, it means that there is an address space range which is not occupied because it comprises of earthlings traveling to the moon. It appears barren because it is an unused part of the address space. If we truly wanted to experience the moon, we would also have to change the other parts of the address space in the deeper spaces as well. For instance, an earthling can travel to the moon by becoming the address e.e.e.m, although the moon dweller has an address m.m.m.m. By changing the last digit of our address, we may claim to have entered the moon, although we have only entered a certain part of the earth’s address space. This address space is unused, as there are no earthlings going to the moon, and the moon appears to be barren. If we happen to colonize the moon and start living there we would still not meet any true lunar beings, because we haven’t truly en-tered the lunar space; we are still in the earth’s address space.”

    **Morality is Belief**

    “Every culture, society, community or nation has its own views about right and wrong, which might be false in other cultures, societies, communities or nations. We have stopped (in most cases) trying to find out if any of these things are indeed facts, because we don’t know what we will measure to decide if those claims are indeed facts.
    Morality just happens to be one of these things that we don’t know how to measure. Therefore, we call it belief, not necessarily true or false. If you take the claim made by Protagoras (a Greek phi-losopher)—man is the measure of all things—seriously, then you might be tempted to assume that morals can never be true or false; beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and so do the morals. Of course, there are many ethical naturalists today who claim that morality is in fact an objective question. Some beliefs are also true, but all beliefs are not. That the sky is blue is a true belief; that the earth is flat is not, even if you happen to believe it. The ethical naturalist holds that one day questions of right or wrong would be answered by the measurement of their natural outcomes. The naturalist however does not say exactly how we will define what is good. Is good what makes me happy? Then clearly man is the measure of all things, and everyone is free to decide what is good for them and there is not basis on which we call morality a true or false judgment. If, however, good is which makes a large number of people happy, how large must the set of people be to determine the goodness? If some people became unhappy, would we neglect them? Then would we not violate the goodness principles of equality and justice?
    If this discussion seems hopeless, let me try to simplify it. Cur-rent science measures the facts of the world, but it cannot measure the truth of the claims because it cannot measure meanings. There is an important difference between facts and truths, which is generally not understood, unless you analyze the nature of falsity. For instance, suppose that I believe that the sky is purple. The thought exists in my brain and can be measured, and science can detect that there is something that exists. But it is impossible to determine that the thing that exists in the brain actually signifies the belief that sky is purple. The only way we can arrive at this conclusion is if we asked the person what he felt at the same time that someone observed his brain, and he or she told us about the experience of their belief. However, let’s suppose that the brain process is actually the meaning of the belief. Since the brain is material, the brain process is created by some natural law which is true in all cases, although this law seems to produce contradictory beliefs—some people believe that the sky is blue while others might believe that it is purple. How can the same law of nature produce contradictory ideas? And if it does produce them, then how can these claims be false? After all, if the premise (the natural laws) is true, then the conclusions derived from these premises (sky is blue or purple) must be true as well, even though these conclusions may be self-contradicting.
    The problem in science is that we cannot interpret physical facts into meanings. But if we actually interpreted them into mean-ings then it would lead to a logical contradiction. If we cannot inter-pret facts into meanings, we cannot make claims about true or false, and that is clearly problematic: it makes nature incomplete. But if we interpret the facts into meanings, then nature is logically inconsistent. We encountered this problem earlier in the context of mathematics—it is called Gödel’s incompleteness theorem—which concludes that any logical system can be either inconsistent or incomplete. If it is incomplete, we cannot decide the truth of claims, when they are treated as concepts, representing some other facts besides their own existence. Mathematics can derive some theorems from axioms—essentially tokens from tokens—but these tokens cannot be considered representations or descriptions of facts. If we happen to treat the tokens as concepts, then mathematics is inconsistent.
    Physical theories of nature can measure the existence of things, but not their truth, because to decide if they are true, we must first give them meanings, and that makes the system logically incon-sistent. The problem for a physical theory is—how can false things exist? If nature is logical, then it must only permit true things be-cause we assume that it begins in true axioms which are converted into true conclusions by the application of logic. If nature were in-deed logical then everything that exists must also be true. Since the belief that sky is purple exists in my brain, it must also be true.
    The problem of morality stems from the fact that we separate existence from truth: ideas about morality exist in my head, but they may not be true. Judgments of right and wrong exist as beliefs but they may be incorrect. How can something false exist in nature if nature is supposed to be logically consistent? The problem of morality is therefore not different from the problem of any belief, and the problem is that we don’t know how false beliefs can exist. The solution to this problem—as we have seen previously—requires a shift in thinking about nature; nature should not be viewed as things which are given meanings (because things never become meanings). Rather, nature should be viewed as meanings which become things; all such things are now symbols of meanings. When nature is treated in this way, there is a difference between existence and truth, and the difference is created because there are meanings.
    The sensations about objects are now contingent meanings and morals about objects are abstract meanings. We cannot see, hear, taste, touch or smell the morality, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. To perceive meanings, we need a method of observation that goes beyond sensation. The problem of morality however is only a progression in the process of perception—senses perceive sensations, the mind perceives concepts, the intellect perceives order and structure, the ego perceives intentions, and, therefore, there must be a “moral sense” that perceives morals, if indeed morals are facts and not merely beliefs. Unless deeper forms of perceptions can be developed, the reality corresponding to such percepts cannot be understood, because the theories that explain such observations themselves cannot be formulated. Morality about facts is a deeper fact, but to even envision deeper facts we must recognize that there is something deeper than sensations; this viewpoint is possible only if objects themselves can be viewed as conceptual entities, because then it becomes possible to understand more abstract concepts.
    The problem of morality therefore does not begin in morality itself. It rather begins in the question of truth and why some things that exist may not necessarily be true. If my brain cannot denote sensations, concepts, order, and intentions, then it also cannot de-note morality. If the material objects do not denote sensations, con-cepts, order, and intentions, then morality too cannot be real. How-ever, this isn’t necessarily a problem of morality itself; it is rather a question about whether my other perceptions of sensations, con-cepts, order, and intentions are real. If I see yellow and yellowness is not real, then if I see morality those morals too must be unreal.
    In Vedic philosophy, the universe begins in morals as a form of material consciousness called mahattattva. This material element represents the good and bad, right and wrong. Judgments of morality are higher than intentions, and only when we consider something good and right, we intend it. From the intentions develop notions about order and structure, from this order emerge concepts, from the concepts emerge sensations, and from the sensations emerge objects. This emergence can be understood in a semantic view of nature where morals are a deep form of material reality. Unless material objects can denote concepts, they cannot denote morals.”

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