Indic Science: Overview
Eurocentric scientists and authors believe that science didn’t exist before the “Age of Reason” during the Enlightenment period. Doubtless, the modern scientific method was developed during this time and science started playing an increasingly influential role amongst the Europeans for the first time in the 17th century. In fact, by the 18th century, thanks to the progress made by the modern science via the discoveries and mathematical theories of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662 CE), Robert Boyle (1627–1691 CE), Issac Newton (1642–1727 CE), etc., scientific authority had began to displace religious authority (as well as philosophers’ authority) in Europe.
But, science is merely a systematic accumulation of knowledge based on evidence — there is nothing Eurocentric about it. Besides Greco-Roman civilization, there have been several civilizations that have systematically accumulated evidence-based knowledge over the last several millenniums. These are referred to as “indigenous knowledge systems” and provide wealth of verified information not only about environment, ecology and ecosystems, economic, psychology and sociology, agriculture, etc. but also about the “hard sciences” such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and medicine (biology).
As an example, consider Ayurveda — the Indic medicine system. As a result of pioneering work done by researchers such as Dharampal (who made use of the writings and correspondence of British personnel stationed in India to inform their colleagues and superiors in the Britain; Dharampal summarized his findings in the “Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century”), there is a growing understanding and acceptance that the ancient Indian physicians had mastered the science of surgery (based on ancient Indic compendium known as Sushruta Samhita), vaccinations (such as for smallpox), etc.
Sāyaṇa (1315–1387 CE) had estimated the speed of light to be 185,794 miles per second (which is quite close to the currently-accepted value of 186,300 miles per second). [link] In addition, ancient Indic scientists knew that the distance between the earth and the sun is approximately 108 times the sun’s diameter; the diameter of the sun is about 108 times the earth’s diameter; and the distance between the earth and the moon is 108 times the moon’s diameter. [link] Interestingly, Buddha had given the size of one “small particle” in Lalitavistara Sutra to be 53 picometer (= 53 x 10–12 meter) — while the size of the hydrogen atom is 50 picometer! [link]
These are just a few examples that point towards a stunningly rich and diverse Indic scientific tradition. This scientific tradition has continued unbroken for more than 3,000 years and has been credited with the discovery of zero, the current numeral and decimal system by mathematics, the so-called Pythagoras theorem (originally mentioned in the Baudhayana Sulba-sutra around 800 BCE) [link], the so-called Fibonacci numbers (originally mentioned by Virahanka, Gopala, and Hemachandra between 600 CE — 1150 CE; all before Fibonacci in 1200 CE) [link], and so on.
This indicates the existence of a continuous and rich tradition of Indic Sciences. Before we look at Indic Sciences, it is good to first look at the main aspects of Western Science, which has led the way over the last 400 years.
Western Science rests on two important pillars:
- Galileo’s quantitative focus: Galileo asserted that the science related to the material universe needed only quantitative description: distance between earth and moon, the speed of light, the property of water at different temperatures, etc. In his quest to make the mathematics to be the language of the universe, Galileo claimed that the qualities (such as the bliss of watching beautiful colors at sunset, the poignant remembrance of an annihilated community members, etc.) didn’t really exist and, literally, were figment of one’s imaginations! [link]
- Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism: Descartes suggested that the Universe is split into material and non-material elements (body and mind, respectively). He claimed that the mind and body had independent and non-overlapping existence. This implied that the body (and the physical world) operated with mechanistic principles. Mechanistic principle, in turn, gave rise to reductionist science because it is possible to disassemble a “machine” into smaller parts, which makes it easier to experiment with and understand them better. This is useful because, for mechanistic systems, the whole is typically equal to the sum of the individual parts.
These two provided the philosophical ground for the “modern” (i.e., Western) science, which is experimental, mechanistic, and reductionist to flourish over the last 400 years.
In reality, the foundations of the Western Science were laid over much longer time duration. Western science historians trace the origins of the thought process and outlook back to the ancient Greco-Roman civilization that existed more than 2,500 years ago. The “Western Worldview” that provides the basis and the bulwark to the Western Science has its genesis in the ancient Western civilization.
First, the debate between qualitative and quantitative aspects of reality originated with Plato’s Idealism. Plato proposed “Theory of Forms”, which said that the visible world of matter depended on the invisible world of Forms. These invisible Forms (which neither exist in the mind nor in the physical world of space and time) give shape to the visible world. The visible world is merely a shadow of the invisible Forms (as explained by Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”); moreover, the “pure” Forms were considered superior to the world of “messy” matter.
Aristotle recognized that Plato’s theory was untenable and tried to fix it by claiming that forms (different from Plato’s Forms) and matter are both real and they coexist. This outlook is referred to as Aristotle’s Realism.
Western Science and Western Philosophy, therefore, have had a long history of debating between Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Realism (and their variants). Galileo “resolved” in favor of the quantitative reality, which is a variant (a strict form) of Aristotle’s Realism.
In some sense, Galileo asserted that the qualities were a type of “Forms” — which didn’t have real existence and existed only in the mind of the observer. Or, perhaps, this was closer to what Democritus had claimed about “the qualities of experience” (and had similarly relegated them to non-existence): “by convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color; but in reality atoms and void”. [link]
In any case, exclusion of qualitative aspects of the reality, led to Francis Bacon’s “modern scientific method”, which an empirical method for gathering scientific knowledge (with the help of controlled experiments and careful observation of experimental results). [link]
Second, Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism has a long backstory. Plato treated the soul to be separate from Forms (which corresponded to the ultimate reality). Moreover, Plato treated “mind” as a special attribute of the soul. Aristotle reversed this by asserting that the “forms” (which coexist with matter in his formulation) are animated souls. Souls are responsible for changing matter into a composite substance that has life. Moreover, Aristotle defined “mind” to be an active mind that is of the same nature as the “Prime Mover”. In other words, Aristotle proposed that soul is a form of the body and that mind is as aspect of soul; in other words, soul is not a separate substance. Stated differently, body is matter and soul is a “form” (and their combination creates life and movement; this process is referred to as Aristotle’s concept of Hylomorphism). [link]
Descartes also completely disagreed with Aristotelian worldview. He rejected the splitting of corporeal substance into matter and form and instead split the reality into “mind” (non-material aspects of reality) and “body” (material aspects of reality). Descartes also rejected Aristotle’s “Theory of Causes” (especially, “final cause”, purpose, and other divine interventions) and asserted that they don’t play any role in the natural phenomena. Instead, Descartes suggested that the body and the physical world operated with mechanistic principles.
In order to establish the validity of knowledge created by humans, Descartes claimed that the mind belonged to the domain of the God. This helped to argue the deductions and conclusions drawn by the mind were trustworthy.
Descartes’ Realism, therefore, provided for independent existence of matter but asserted that “mind” is superior to “body” (which is analogous with Plato’s Idealism). Now, since sense organs are part of the body, it raised an interesting question in the context of science: can we trust the experimental results and observations collected through the sense organs?
Following Plato’s footsteps, Descartes asserted that, “sense perceptions don’t provide accurate information”. Descartes argued that true knowledge could come only through “pure reason”. Unlike Plato, however, he relaxed the constraint somewhat and proposed that scientific observations together with careful monitoring can be treated as an “interpretative act”. This laid the foundation for the subtle undercurrent of the unease with experimental results and observations (which are perceived through sense organs) in the Western Science. [link]
Indic Science is fundamentally different from all the paradigms of the Western Science. To explore this, let’s look at the two pillars again:
- Galileo’s quantitative focus: Unlike these two, Indic sciences include qualitative aspects of the reality in an integral manner. Mind and matter don’t belong to different domains. In fact, Maya or Mahat or nama (the principle underlying the qualified and transient Universe) includes intellect, memory, identity, perception/cognition, and thoughts, feelings as well as matter. Indic sciences posit that the non-material aspects of the Universe (intellect, memory, thoughts, etc.) are more fundamental than the material aspects of the Universe.
- Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism: Unlike Cartesian Dualism that separated material and non-material aspects of the Universe and eliminated mind (and consciousness) from the western science’s purview, a lot of schools of thought in Indic sciences have explored the science of Brahman, which is often mapped to the “universal consciousness”. Brahman, as per the Indic worldview, is the unchanging and unqualified Absolute. It is the principle from everything in the Universe evolved and, therefore, Brahman underlies the unity in the Universe. As a result, Indic sciences don’t have the mind (or consciousness) and body (or matter) divide.
Unlike the Western philosophy, Indic worldview proposes the robust form of realism (“Indic Realism”) that accepts:
- The reality of consciousness
- The reality of qualitative reality (including thoughts, intentions, memory, intellect, etc.)
- The reality of the quantitative reality (including matter, “body”, “mind”, etc.).
Moreover, Indic worldview proposes that each of these can be observed and validated via ‘pratyaksha pramana’ (direct perception and observation).
Based on this, we can see that Indic Science has very different outlook compared to the (modern) Western Science. To emphasize this, we can view different scientific worldviews from two perspectives:
- Does the worldview treat “consciousness” as fundamental or not?
- Does the worldview treat “mind” and “body” to belong to the same domain or not? In other words, does the worldview support mind-body divide or not?
Each of these has further nuances. As mentioned earlier, Aristotelian science treated soul to be fundamental and mind to be its attribute. And, starting with John Locke in the 17th century, Western Philosophy added consciousness to be (roughly) in the same category as the soul and mind.
The materialistic variant of Western Science treats consciousness to be an epiphenomenon of matter. In specific, the mind is considered to be the generator of the consciousness. Theories such as Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR, proposed by Hameroff and Penrose) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT, proposed by Tononi) proposed that consciousness (and “mind”) evolves due to specific structure of the brain. Some Western philosophers and scientists believe that consciousness is not real at all (i.e., not even generated by matter) — it is nothing but illusion, a fiction created by the brain to help biological organisms (defined in the mechanistic way) to keep track of their activities. [link]
Mind-body divide, as we mentioned earlier, has implications on whether or not the science can rely on the observations made by the sense organs. This mind-body divide originated in the early Greco-Roman philosophies. Thales, one of the earliest known Greek philosophers, had proposed that all beings with “minds” had the ability to move on their own (and, in this way, differed from other matter). This led to the “panpsychism” (where pan = all and psyche = soul or mind), which struggled to explain why, if the mind is an elemental feature of the world, there is an apparent lack of mental features at the fundamental level amongst matter (and body). [link]
As opposed to the mind-body divide in the Western philosophy and science, Indic philosophies and schools of thought are consistent and persistent in their outlook right from the beginning: “mind” (referred to as “manas”) and “body” (referred to as “rupa”) belong to the same domain. Both of these originate from the same underlying fundamental building blocks and, therefore, are able to interact with each other.
This, together with the Idealism versus Realism debate, gives rise to Epistemic versus Ontic knowledge debate: does science describe the actual reality (the “reality as-it-is”) or does it merely correspond to our understanding of the reality (which might be different from the reality as-it-is)?
Based on these parameters, we can identify different “worldviews”, which corresponding to different assumptions or outlooks of the reality. Based on these worldviews, we can identify different versions of science itself.
With the help of this classification, it is important to emphasize that Indic Science is neither just the science of consciousness nor just the holistic science (as opposed to reductionist science). Indic Science is much more; it requires both reductionist science and holistic science, which are just different approaches for conducting experiments and collecting evidence. Besides the science of consciousness, Indic Science includes the science of non-material aspects of the reality — after all, the distinction between “mind’ and “body” perpetuated by the Cartesian Dualism is not supported by the Indic Science. Per Indic Science, all the existence relies on the Brahman; while “mind” and “body” belong to the same domain. This, together with presence of consciousness, intention, thoughts, qualitative realities (dependent on sensory perceptions), indicates that the mechanistic outlook associated with Cartesian Dualism is fundamentally incompatible with the Indic Science.
Based on the above, we can summarize the important points to be as follows:
- Indic sciences are not just holistic science (as opposed to the reductionist science). In any case, over the last few decades, the science of “emergent systems” has shown that holistic science and reductionist science complement each other.
- Indic sciences are not just the science of consciousness — they include the science of material and non-material Universe as well.
- Indic sciences include qualitative aspects of the reality in an integral manner. Indic sciences treat material reality (and matter) and non-material reality (such as intellect, memory, identity, perception/cognition, and thoughts, feelings) to have the same building blocks. In some sense, Indic sciences posit that the non-material aspects of the Universe (intellect, memory, thoughts, etc.) are more fundamental than the material aspects of the Universe.
Ontic versus Epistemic Science
Let’s start by defining these two terms. Ontic view of reality implies that science corresponds to the reality as-it-is. Epistemic view of reality implies that science corresponds to our knowledge about the reality. In other words, ontic version of science strives to define the underlying objective reality; the epistemic version of science strives to define the knowledge of an underlying objective reality.
Now, the knowledge about the underlying objective reality (i.e., the epistemic version of science) itself can be of two types: first type corresponds to the statistical science that defines the objective world in terms of statistics and probability distribution to the underlying building blocks (and not about the building blocks themselves). As an example, the pressure exerted by liquids and gases is defined in this manner. The second type of epistemic science does not deal with the intrinsic properties of the underlying reality; it, instead, describes the observations or experiences an observer has of the underlying reality. Therefore, epistemic science corresponds to observer’s knowledge about the expected results of potential experiments. [link]
Western science during the “Clockwork Universe” of Newton, et al (which dealt with macroscopic objects) was mostly ontic science. However, as the science started dealing with microscopic objects (such as gas molecules for gas pressure and temperature and subsequently with atomic and sub-atomic particles), Western science veered towards epistemic science. Unlike ontic states of a system (which describe all properties of a physical system exhaustively), epistemic states provide statistical (and non exhaustive) information about the reality. [link]
Even otherwise, Western Science and Western Philosophy have had a long history of flirting with Plato’s Idealism. This dalliance has continued even after Western Science (and Western Philosophy) adopted Cartesian Dualism and Descartes’ version of Realism. However, Descartes categorized “mind” to be superior to “body” — in a manner analogous to how Plato had categorized Forms to be at a higher level (and more pure) than the matter. Descartes, therefore, re-ignited the debate between the “world of ideas” (originating in Plato’s Forms) and “world of things” (originating in Democritus’ atomic theory).
Western Philosophy, therefore, has persistently doubted our ability to perceive and understand the ultimate reality. This outlook is perfectly captured by Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” that claims that the perceived world is merely the shadows of the actual world, the ultimate reality. Right from the start, Western philosophy has preferred theoretical constructs and models, which is away from the “messy” world and in the superior world of “forms” — which subsequently got replaced by mathematics and “reason” (deductive and inductive logic).
On top of it, Western Philosophy has always treated sense organs (which belong to the domain of the “body”) to be inferior to “mind”. This theoretical apprehension became more concrete when the model of visual perception was formulated. It was proposed that perception happens when the images are formed in the brain, in a manner analogous to how images are captured within mechanical devices such as cameras. Given the mechanistic outlook of the world, including machine-like view of the human body, this formulation was accepted quickly.
Now, since the image inside the brain is distinct from the object being perceived (and the images formed within camera could be manipulated via lens’ shape, color, etc.), it is not difficult to believe that the internal image (which drives perception) need not be identical to the external object.
Therefore, Western Philosophy has worked with three uncertainties over the millenniums:
- First, uncertainty about whether we are observing the actual reality or merely its shadows;
- Second, uncertainty about whether the sense organs are providing the unvarnished picture of the reality; and
- Third, uncertainty about mind’s ability to create mental models for increasing its survival odds (as opposed to understanding the reality as-it-is).
Given these, it comes as no surprise that Western Science is unsure about its ability to understand and explain the ultimate reality.
And, as a result, over the centuries, Western Science has developed an ever-stronger belief is the epistemic view of reality. Philosophy of Western Science considers science to be a process by which humans develop and refine their conceptual understanding of the world. This understanding is then tested or validated against their direct observations of the world. The epistemic view of the reality implies that this conceptual understanding exists entirely within the structure of the mind while the observations are generated entirely by human perception with the help of instruments and sense organs. At an operational level, Bacon’s experimental science has overcome the perceived inferiority of the perception by emphasizing the “third-person science”.
Third-person science requires the ability to not only conducted experiments but to identify repeatable experiments that can be replicated by others. This requires the scientists to share the details of their experimental setup so that others can replicate the experiments and verify the experimental results on their own. Third-person science implicitly assumes that the observers don’t impact the empirical evidence being collected in an experiment and, furthermore, that empirical experiments cannot be repeated flawlessly without external instruments. However, at the conceptual level, Western Science and Philosophy still favor epistemic view of the reality.
Indic Science takes a diametrically opposite view and adopts an unambiguously clear ontic view of reality. Right from the ancient times, Indic science has had no uncertainty and vacillation between the “idealism” and “realism” debates witnessed by the Western philosophy and science.
Indic Science asserts that matter, sense organs, and mind have the same basis as the rest of the Universe. Moreover, ultimately, all these also have the same basis as the consciousness — since everything is a manifestation of Brahman. As a result, we have the ability to perceive the reality as-it-is and, therefore, the science has the ability to define the ultimate reality precisely and completely.
Indic Science, therefore, asserts that the ultimate reality can be defined perfectly, can be perceived completely, and can be understood fully. As mentioned earlier, Indic Science strives to define the reality of not only quantitative but also qualitative aspects of the reality — including the reality of the Brahman, the Absolute, from which the consciousness and other aspects of unity (inter-connectedness and inner-connectedness) arise.
Indic sciences treat ‘pratyaksha pramana’ (direct perception and observation) as a valid form of acquiring knowledge. Pratyaksha refers to direct, first-hand perception. This is when the pramata (knower) observes the prameya (object of knowledge) directly. Pratyaksha pramana allows the observer to gain direct and first-hand perception of the reality. Since pratyaksha pramana helps to observe the reality as-it-is, it is considered to be the superior form of gaining knowledge.
According to Indic Science, perception is the very nature of the Brahman and atman. Direct perception reveals the object in its actual form through the contact of consciousness of atman with the object; the contact is mediated the sense organs and manas (mind). [link] Shankara in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya 3.3.54 stated that: “The thing that perceives objects is the atman (or consciousness)”. In other words, the very nature of atman is to perceive and cognize. This is because the atman is self-effulgent and, by virtue of self-effulgence, has the capacity to reveal objects. In Sanatana Dharma, this functional aspect of the atman is called the atman’s jnana-shakti. [link, link]
Moreover, Indic sciences found that tapas (ardor), dhyaan (meditation), and other “spiritual” practices help to sharpen the ability of the human mind and senses to observe the reality and, in fact, human body is a beautiful instrument to observe the reality as-it-is. [link]
It is possible to visualize Indic Science that judiciously combines the evidence-based third-person scientific exploration approach with the Indic worldview. As highlighted earlier, Indic Science is the “real science” — it believes in the reality of the world. Moreover, based on the experience and evidence gathered by numerous rishis (Indic scientists) over the years, Indic Science asserts the certitude of direct perception.
There is nothing so terrible as the birth of an idea whose time has come.
— Victor Hugo