by Swami Krishnananda
Commonsense perception makes one believe that the ultimate stuff of the world is matter. The senses give us the intimations of the existence of physical bodies outside our own. We, generally speaking, live in a world presented by the senses, and the senses happen to come in contact only with material bodies, for they are gross even as matter is. In the beginning, human attempt to understand the nature of the world ended in the discovery that some physical element must be the reality. Some thought that water is the primal substance. Certain others felt it is fire, some air, and so on. This is the natural consequence of the most primitive form of perception. Matter was taken to be what it was observed to be. There are the five gross elements, and everything seems to be composed of them. Some ancient speculators, no doubt, felt a need to accept the presence of a mind, in addition to these elements. But its position in the scheme of things was so weak that it was superseded by the feeling that the elements are, somehow, the ultimate realities of the world.
But this state of affairs could not continue for long. Matter became one of the two realities making up the world, the other being mind or thought. Matter is mere extension, it is the material of all bodies, animal and human alike, though the human being has a thinking and understanding faculty, this distinguishing him from the lower animals which are said to be, more or less, automatons moved by instinct. There were also others to whom matter appeared as the symbol of imperfection, the dark qualityless basis of the world, and could be designated as non-being. Only the mind contemplating it can be real. These thinkers took little interest in the constitution of matter, for, to them, it had little significance in the realm of realities. Matter was also believed to be the potential state of what is more real, the latency of the form, a stage in the process of development. The world of matter was held to be not a static being, but a movement, a march towards the actualisation of pure form. Matter, again, was thought to consist of sleeping centres of energy or force. Minds are such centres risen to consciousness, while matter is their unevolved state. Others felt that matter is an attribute of reality which appears as matter from one viewpoint and as thought from another.
It is interesting to note that present-day science has slowly risen from the perception of solid matter, by a gradual improvement of the instruments of its knowledge. The world which was supposed to be consisting of the gross elements and various kinds of objects was reduced to a few simple chemical elements which were thought to be incapable of further simplification. But these elements were again analysed, and, with Dalton, came the theory that these consisted of minute granular substances or atoms. The number of the atoms was supposed to correspond to that of the chemical elements, of which the former are the constituents. But then came, again, the wonderful researches of a group of eminent pioneers of a revolution in science, which revealed the electrical nature of the atom and the possibility of breaking it into further minute elements. The cause of the difference in the various kinds of atoms was found to be something startlingly new. The difference was discovered to be not in the quality of the constituents of the atom, but in their number, arrangement and manner of movement. The constituents themselves are identical in nature in all the atoms of the different chemical elements. The atoms are made up of positive and negative charges of electricity, called protons and electrons. Later, several other phases, such as neutrons that have no charges in them, and positrons which are positive electrons, were discovered. The atom is described as something similar to a solar system. The central nucleus of the atom is comparable to the sun, with the electrons revolving round it as the planets. There is an immensity of space between these revolving particles and the central nucleus, as well as between the particles themselves. These electrical constituents of the atom are supposed to be the irreducible minimum reality in the world.
Scientists, however, have not been able to come to the last element in the analysis of matter. They have reached only organisms after organisms and their mysterious functions, and nothing else. Even the nature of these organisms is not known, only their behaviour is observed. One cannot say what electricity is, but only how it behaves. Electric energy is a name given to the farthest process discovered in the world by instruments available to the methods of science. Energy is not being but becoming, and its activity is the same as its existence. Modern physics has given a quietus to the age-old materialistic theory of the world, and has landed in the realm of a dynamic process of organisms acting symmetrically on one another. Being has given way to becoming. Science, however, has remained blind to the fact that even a process cannot be, unless it is observed by an intelligence. The highest reality cannot be any object, though it be a cosmic object, like energy, which is distinguished from the consciousness that knows it. The error in the scientist’s way of knowing comes into high relief when he faces insurmountable difficulties in his search for reality. To him, electric energy and light appear to have the character of waves as well as of discrete corpuscles. All phenomena are now supposed to be a continuous process of particles. It is not difficult to note that isolated particles cannot form a process. And yet this appears, to the eye of the scientist, to be the juggling activity of the ultimate constituents of matter and light. He forgets that there are certain restricting conditions imposed upon his knowledge by the very nature of the instruments he uses in his researches as well as by the structure of his mind and sense-organs. One cannot know truth by remaining as an observer outside it, for the limitations on individual knowledge are removed only when the distinction between the knower and the known is abolished in a self-identical awareness.
The dilemma in which the scientist is landed by his defective means of knowing becomes clear from another problem raised in science which goes by the name of the Principle of Indeterminacy. This is the outcome of the inability of the scientific method of observation to fix the track of the movement of electrons in an atom. The laws of mechanics fail here, and the electron does not seem to obey any law known to man. It is seen to make jumps from one point of space to another in a manner that cannot be determined by any scientific law. This predicament has led many to think that there is no freedom in the universe, that there is no choice, and that indeterminacy reigns supreme everywhere. This conclusion is evidently exaggerated, for the principle only means that the ways of tracing the movements of the electron are not known to scientists yet, and that their present instruments of research are not as subtle as the force with which the electrons move. This cannot be taken to amount to a denial of the causal law and the system with which the universe appears to be governed.
The present trend of science has been towards an idealistic monism, affirming finally a mental or spiritual principle as the ultimate stuff of the universe. Newton’s physics and Euclid’s geometry have given rise to the theory of relativity and the geometry of the four-dimensional manifold. The mechanistic laws of Newtonian physics and the theorems and deductions of Euclid hold good in our world, with our space-time, but are proclaimed to be inapplicable to the inconceivably small realm of microphysics, as also to the inconceivably great universe envisaged in astrophysics. Modern physics gives, thus, not a material world in the old sense of the term, but a relative structure to be equated, in the end, with the functions of a cosmic mind or consciousness. Behind the man of commonsense perception is the chemist. Behind chemist is physicist. Behind the physicist is the mathematician. Symbols and equations have taken the place of physical bodies. But these, however, are contained in the mind of the mathematician. And behind the activity of the mathematical mind is the searching analysis of the philosopher.
Philosophers have endeavoured to know reality in the most comprehensive way, but have not come to any uniform conclusion in regard to it. There are pluralists, dualists, materialistic monists, idealistic monists and neutral monists. The differences among these theories are attributable to the varying points of view from which speculators tried to comprehend reality. In essence, pluralism forms the beginning of philosophical speculation. It does not require much effort to become a pluralist, for it is a cluster of diversified elements that is naturally presented to man through the senses with their variegated capacities. The Nyaya posits the reality of substances like earth, water, fire, air, ether, space, time, mind and soul—all held to be equally real and coeternal. The God of this system has obviously to be an extra-cosmic creator, or, more strictly, a fashioner, of the structure of the universe. Such a pluralistic theory as this seems to be agreeable to commonsense, for it can be readily accepted without the exercise of much thought. But commonsense is often confined to the manner in which the world is known by the senses, and is blind to the deeper implications of experience. How does the pluralist explain the relation among the different ultimate entities which he has established? It is imperative that a knowledge of diversity should be rooted in some kind of unity of perception. Plurality is impossible unless there is a witnessing consciousness, different from the pluralistic entities, and connecting them all in a relation of coherence. An extra-cosmic God cannot have any relation to the world, and cannot even fashion it, not even be aware of it. A conscious subject, absolutely independent of its objects, cannot know them, for no relation is possible between differing self-existent principles. All questions ultimately hinge upon the problems of knowledge. The structure of consciousness is the crux of philosophical enquiries. With its understanding, all problems get solved, naturally. A thorough-going pluralist cannot defend himself against the charge that even he could not be aware of a plurality of ultimate entities without the aid of a unitary consciousness comprehending them all. His reality hangs loosely in some indeterminable emptiness, call it space or any other thing. The pluralist tries to dovetail artificially several realities into his system, forgetting, however, that in the act of bringing them together to form a consistent whole, he has unconsciously introduced into it a universal synthesising principle made manifest in his own mind. The great defect in all objectivist approaches is that the subject neglects to count itself as an essential element that goes to determine the character of its concept of reality.
The dualist, no doubt, makes an advance upon the commonsense perception of the pluralist. He observes that all things can be reduced, somehow, to a conscious knower and an unconscious known. The material universe is always the known and never the knower. The knower is always conscious as distinguished from the known which is unconscious. In the West, dualists like Descartes thought that there are two ultimate realities—thought and extension, mind and matter. In India, dualists like the Sankhya philosophers reduced the universe to Purusha and Prakriti, an infinite knowing consciousness, and an infinite unconscious primordial stuff with a possibility of all things. The habit of the pluralists to pack realities in different parcels was found to be gravely mistaken, and the theory of an ultimate duality of consciousness and matter appeared to be most reasonable and appealing to the human mind. But even those among the dualists who thought that consciousness is infinite held that there is a plurality of consciousness. Evidently, they came to this conclusion by drawing an analogy from the perception of a diversity of knowing subjects in the world. This belief, however, could not carry them far, for the impossibility of asserting many infinities did not take much time to force itself into the minds of more deeply thinking philosophers. Moreover, the relation of consciousness to matter became a problem difficult to solve.