Overview,  Philosophy

What are Manifest and Unmanifest States of Matter?

This is a follow-up to the previous post, which discussed the nature of space in Śrimad Bhāgavatam (SB). The goal of this one is to describe the ideas of “manifest” and “unmanifest” states of matter. Matter in the Śrimad Bhāgavatam (and indeed in many other Vedic literatures) is described as originating in an “unmanifest” form, which essentially means that it cannot be known and observed, although it exists. From this “unmanifest” state, a “manifest” state of matter is produced, which can be known and observed. This post discusses how we must understand these states of matter, and how this understanding is related to the observer’s knowledge.

The Holographic Universe

The previous post described how space in SB is like a tree. The trunks, branches, leaves and fruits of this tree are at once ideas, names, and things. Due to this identity between names, ideas, and things, the name by which something is called (words), indicates its properties (meaning), which in turn represents the identity of that object (individual). Space is thus is an “ether” comprised of individual “objects”, identified by a “sound” that denotes “meanings”.

The earlier post did not discuss observer experiences, but they are part of the tree as well. The key difference between an experience and a material object is that experiences are about the world, and this aboutness is achieved by referencing the world through a name. For example, we can say that the “apple is red” where “apple” is a name, and in making that statement we are referencing an object by a name. The experience is also material, so it is a name, a concept, and a thing, and this creates two kinds of names—one that identifies the experience and the other that identifies the object that is being experienced. We can say that the word “apple” is a name—which refers to an external apple. The word “apple” in our experience also has a name which identifies it as being distinct from other experiences—e.g. that of oranges, mangoes, etc.

Observer experiences make the universe “holographic” because there is an external apple and an experience of the apple, and the experience of the apple represents the external apple. The principle of holography is that any part of the universe can “contain” all the other parts, and in so far as an observer can experience any part of the universe, all these external parts of the universe can be represented within the observer, and the “external” object becomes an “internal” object.

Holography and Hierarchical Space

The idea of holography presents great difficulties in a flat space, but no problems in a hierarchical space. There is a single word—“apple”—which is present in two places (the external world and the internal observation) and we need to distinguish them. In a flat space, the containment of the external apple inside my brain creates a big problem, because clearly, in observing the apple I don’t become an apple. In the hierarchical space, this problem is easily resolved because the name of an object is not just that object but the complete hierarchy of names. Thus, for instance, we don’t say that “I am an apple” but rather that “I see an apple”.

In essence, the term “apple” in the case of apple is attached to an “I”, whereas the term “apple” in the case of my observation is attached to “seeing” which is attached to “I”. Therefore, “I am an apple” is a different name than “I see an apple” because the “apple” is hanging a little lower in the tree of my experience, while it is hanging a step higher in the case of the apple. In the case of my experience, there is “seeing” in between “I” and “apple” but not in the case of the apple. Thus, I am “seeing” an apple, whereas the apple is “being” that apple.

The word “apple” (and therefore the material sound which represent the idea of an apple) is the same in the two cases, but the full name of these two material objects is different—the difference given by “seeing” and “being”. In that sense, even when I have a true knowledge of the world (i.e. that there is an apple), by seeing the apple, I don’t become an apple. My experience and the apple are both two different branches of the universe, and the nodes of the universe also represent identical sound (“apple”) but their points of attachment are different. The concept and sound apple that exists outside also exists inside, but their positions are different.

In that respect, the symbol “apple” which exists outside also exists inside, and they are the same sound, but their full position in space—their full name, meaning, and identity—differs. Since the same sound can exist inside and outside, we can say the outside world exists inside the observer, which is the principle of holography. And yet, these two are not fully identical.

Observers Often Don’t See Everything

There is also an important difference between the apple and my experience of that apple in that I don’t fully experience all the parts of the apple. For instance, if I just see the apple from outside, I may not see its inside. The inside of the apple is a part of the apple, but it is not immediately observable unless I cut the apple. Thus, even in the ordinary experience of an apple, I will not obtain all the information present in the apple, unless I make efforts to expose it to my senses. To expose all the information, I must follow certain procedures—e.g. cutting the apple.

In that sense, the world is not automatically knowable to the fullest extent simply by using the senses of knowledge—e.g. the eyes. Sometimes, we have to use the senses of action—e.g. hands—to perform a procedure in order to expose that information to the senses of knowledge. In such a case, the knowledge we obtain is a byproduct of using both kinds of senses—of knowledge and action. Did the resulting knowledge always exist, or was it “created” by my effort to manipulate the world in order to make more aspects of the world knowable?

A school of thought—called naïve realism—says that the inside of the apple that I see after cutting the apple also existed before cutting, although my senses did not have access to it. There is another school of thought—called operationalism—which says that the inside of the apple did not exist a priori before the cutting, but was created by the operation of cutting the apple.

Modern Science vs. Śrimad Bhāgavatam

By and large, modern science operates under naïve realism. We suppose that if I see something due to a procedure, that thing must always have existed, and the procedure only made it visible to me. But naïve realism often fails quite miserably. For instance, if you push an electrical switch, which causes a fan to rotate, you cannot say that you have simply performed a procedure that revealed the state of reality just as it existed before the procedure because clearly, the fan was not rotating before the switch was pushed. In these cases, it is appropriate to say that we are creating a reality rather than discovering it.

This fact leads to a crisis because sometimes it appears that procedures are revealing the nature of reality as it existed before my action, and in some cases, it seems that these procedures are creating a new reality that did not exist before my action. In science, this presents the problem of “measurement” because it is not clear whether the actions performed during measurement are revealing a reality or creating a reality.

Śrimad Bhāgavatam provides a solution to this problem through the idea of manifest and unmanifest. The world—prior to observation—exists in an unmanifest form; our action manifests it. So, the world is not exactly how we see it, and our actions are responsible for creating a reality by converting the unmanifest into the manifest. However, this creation isn’t out of thin air, because there is indeed an unmanifest reality.

The unmanifest reality should be viewed as possibility which can be converted into an observation. The transition from possibility to observation is our creation, and therefore our effort is the efficient cause of the observed facts. However, the possibility existed objectively, and it is, therefore, the material cause of the observed facts. This reconciles the apparent contradiction between creating reality and discovering reality. However, it leads to serious questions of what is the unmanifest from which the manifest is created.

What are Manifest and Unmanifest?

The difficulties in understanding the manifest and unmanifest arise because we treat the material world as substances or physical entities that must either exist or not exist. Possibility does not fit into this paradigm. When science is faced with the conversion of unmanifest into the manifest, it is unable to conceive the nature of “possibility” and converts into a “probability”—i.e. the facts that we can empirically validate. The result is that we cannot understand how the world exists before observation, because we have converted possibility into a probability, and that probability is not an existence.

This difficulty in understanding unmanifest and manifest disappears when the world is treated as ideas. Now, the unmanifest is abstract ideas, and the manifest is contingent ideas. For example, the idea “table” is unmanifest to the senses. However, as this idea is enhanced with more details to create “kitchen table”, followed by addition of properties such as ‘color’, ‘size’, ‘weight’, etc. the idea becomes “manifest” to the senses. To manifest a “table” to the senses, therefore, we have to add information to it, and this addition is performed by an observer. The additional information is material cause, but the act of combining the new information with the old is the efficient cause.

The result depends on the information added. In that sense, the observation is not totally arbitrary because there is an underlying reality—“table”. However, the observation is not entirely determined by that reality because additional information is required to create the observation. The observation is not just a reality that existed prior to observation—i.e. naïve realism. And the observation is not entirely an outcome of the actor producing an event—i.e. operationalism. It lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

Uncertainty and Objectivity

The idea “table” is more uncertain than a “kitchen table”, while a “long black kitchen table” is less uncertain than a “kitchen table”. As we add information, the uncertainty reduces; information and uncertainty are therefore opposites. Thus, “table” or “kitchen table” are also objective, although they are uncertain. Current scientific notions of objectivity need a significant overhaul to understand that ideas such as “table” and “kitchen table” are also definite entities, although they are conceptually uncertain because a lot more information can be added to these entities to create an observation.

The “table” is uncertain and definite at once. If we treat it as a probability (as science does), then we cannot explain why it becomes more definite. If however we treat it as being completely certain (like a classical physical particle), then we cannot explain why an observer can add information to it, to create even more definiteness. In short, when “table” is treated either as a physical object or as an observation, the result is a paradox.

In modern physics, these paradoxes are “solved” by the use of confusing terms such as wave-particle duality in which the definiteness is expressed by calling it a particle and the uncertainty by calling it a wave. There are other words too such as complementarity which expresses the belief that there are two “aspects” of this object—certainty and uncertainty.

These words do not explain reality because we are prone to reduce everything to objects and observations—i.e. materialism and empiricism. The view in Śrimad Bhāgavatam resolves these problems because the unmanifest is neither a physical entity nor is it observable, although it can be made a physical and observable entity when the observers and actors intervene to convert something abstract into something contingent.

The Role of Guna and Karma

The unmanifest reality in Śrimad Bhāgavatam exists as guna and karma. Guna comprises our past habits, and they exist in a latent form unless they are enacted into behavior. Karma comprises the results of previous actions, and it also lies latent unless converted into an outcome. Both guna and karma, therefore, exist as material possibilities but they are not observable facts. The transformation of these possibilities involves time and free will. For instance, all past habits will not automatically become behavior, if we can control those habits through free will. Similarly, all results of previous actions don’t manifest at once, because time transforms them from an unmanifest state into an observable fact.

Our experiences are produced from the interaction of guna and karma. As noted earlier, the unmanifest becomes manifest when its uncertainty is reduced by adding information. Guna and karma are information from the past, which exists as abstract information. When the guna and karma of different individuals are combined, the total uncertainty—which previously existed in those individuals separately—is reduced, thereby producing an observable fact.

For example, prior to seeing an apple, my senses exist in an abstract form; the sense of sight exists as color, form, size, etc.—which are dimensions—but don’t have a specific value. We can see individual colors (such as red or blue) but we cannot see color itself; we can see specific forms (such as square or circle) but we cannot see form itself. In that sense, consciousness experiences the ability to see (through the existence of the sense of sight) but does not see any specific color, form, size, etc. An apple similarly exists as a set of properties and values—e.g. the color red, the smell sweet, the smooth touch. When information in the apple combines with the information in the senses, the redness in the apple attaches to color in the eyes, the sweetness of the scent attaches to the smell in the nose, the smoothness of the touch attaches to the texture in the skin, etc. The senses, which were previously in an uncertain state, are thus transformed into a more definite state, and their uncertainty has been overcome by additional information. The shift from uncertain to definite results in the production of an experience.

Essentially, some information is transferred from the apple to the senses. After this transfer, the senses are in a more certain state. The uncertainty of the state of the senses has been overcome by the information in an object. This is made possible by combining two kinds of uncertainty so that one thing becomes more certain. Choice and time play an important role in this interaction, the details of which I will not discuss here.