21 Jul

Can Biology Be Based on the Nature of the Soul?

In Vedic philosophy, the soul has three properties—sat or consciousness, chit or meanings, and ananda or pleasure. The sat of the soul is “I am”, the chit of the soul is “I have”, and the ananda of the soul is “I want”. These three aspects of the soul are also reflected in matter and pervade throughout the body—the parts of the body are due to chit or “I have”, the functions of each of the parts is due to sat or “I am”, and the pleasure associated with the functions of the parts is due to ananda or “I want”. Thus, even the world around us is a reflection of the properties of the soul (as parts, functions, and purposes), but they are so deeply enmeshed that we tend to think that the part is itself the function, and the function is itself the purpose. This post discusses the differences between these three aspects of the soul, and its implications for biology.

The Hierarchy of Objects

The aspect of the world easiest to observe is that it comprises material objects. These objects are produced from elementary concepts, and they hence constitute complex concepts. The elementary concepts combine in a hierarchy, to create an inverted tree of meanings, quite like sentences are constructed from words, and the grammar of combination forms a tree structure.

As you observe the higher and lower parts of this tree, you find a pattern. The higher nodes are the “bigger” or “macroscopic” objects, while the lower nodes are the “smaller” or “microscopic” particles. For example, the bigger node is an elephant, and the smaller nodes are the elephant’s body parts—tail, stomach, legs, ears, etc. The smaller is connected to the bigger, although the bigger is logically prior to the smaller because it is the higher node in the tree.

If the higher nodes are not perceived (because they are more abstract and hence not amenable to sense perception), then the elephant is not seen. We could still perceive the “tail”, “stomach”, “legs”, etc. and therefore think about the elephant quite like the proverbial blind men, who only see the individual body parts, and call them “cylinder”, “sphere”, “line”, etc. Without the detection of the elephant (even without the existence of the body parts), the body parts themselves would not be considered parts of the single body. They would just be modeled as independent and unrelated objects.

The hierarchy of parts and wholes constitutes the “I have” tree as the body has a hand, the hand has fingers, the fingers have nails, and the nails have tips—all parts of the whole.

The Part-Function Separation

Of course, in just describing the body parts, we haven’t fully described the body because each part of the body also has a unique function, which isn’t yet known. For example, the hands can hold, the legs are used to move, the stomach helps digest food, the head is employed in thinking, etc. The functionality is an additional appellation of the body part due to which the part acquires a role in relation to other parts. The parts are different from the roles, because a part can perform another part’s role. For example, hands can be used to move, and the legs can be used to hold. While a part cannot perform every other part’s functions (the hand cannot think) some parts can perform other’s functions. That ability, however, entails a separation between the ability in the part and the function it is used for.

This idea is easily understood in case of an organization that has functional departments such as engineering, marketing, sales, human resources, finance, legal, manufacturing, etc.  quite separate from the people who are employed in these departments. You can describe the organization as comprised of actual people—which are observable parts that you can see and touch. You can also describe the same organization as divided into functional roles—which are not observable as parts, but become apparent in activities. Some people could potentially work in multiple departments, while others can only do one function. But the key point is that due to job mobility the person is not identical to the role.

The distinction between part and function has been the topic of much debate in biology because many biologists contend that the part is itself the function, and because the parts often perform different functions, although not every part can do every function. The different functions are manifest when a part comes into interaction with another part to which it wasn’t previously interacting. Therefore, new functionality is not a magical property of the part that we don’t see otherwise. It is rather a property that always exists but is only manifest when we put a part into interaction with a previously non-interacting part. In that sense, we an say that the part has a new role in the system.

The problem for the biologist is that they cannot observe the functions as objects because the functions are always subject to the interaction between specific parts. Each new type of interaction potentially brings a new function. And yet, since all parts don’t always interact with all other parts, there can be potentially new functionality in the system. The flaw in biology lies in the thinking which originated in classical physics: that all parts in the universe always interact with all other parts. Therefore, the function of a part is always given exclusively by the part itself. This premise is falsified when all parts don’t always interact with each other, and the evidence of that falsification is atomic theory where the agency of interaction—called the ‘field’—is quantized which means that the interactions are never simultaneously but sequenced in a particular order (which current atomic theory is unable to predict, because the order is a ‘choice’). 

The problem is akin to the well-known fact that a workman’s tool can be used in many different ways, in relation to different objects. The tool is therefore different from the function it performs, because bringing the tool into interaction with another object involves a choice, which can be empirically observed but it cannot be empirically explained because we cannot observe this choice as material object. The materialist claims that since we cannot see the choice objectively, it must not exist. The problem with such a view is that the function of the part changes in relation to different parts and by changing this relation we can produce new  behaviors not previously seen in the part.

The Hierarchy of Roles

Again, this is easily seen in organizations where competitive politics between the divisions creates problems, although the individuals might be competent if only they were afforded a better surrounding and environment. If we actually applied the object-like thinking, then we would blame the people in each division (because we can see them) but not focus on defining their roles in such a way that they can cooperate rather than compete. Just being parts of a larger system doesn’t mean that the parts actually cooperate with each other. The dysfunctional parts need not be faulted if the head was tasked to digest food, the stomach was required to move the body, and the hands were mandated to think. There is a proper role for each part, and while we can know which role is suitable for which part, it is not always necessary that he part is indeed involved only in that role.

The hierarchy of roles also constitutes a tree of functionalities in which the higher node supervises the functions of the lower nodes. However, the functional hierarchy is separate from the physical hierarchy (of parts and wholes). The functional hierarchy is produced from the “I am” property of the soul which then creates functions due to which the stomach (part) is used for digestion (function), the legs are used for walking, the fingers are used for typing, etc. The same part can be used in different ways, and thus the relation between part and function varies.

All living entities perform the same basic functions—eating, sleeping, mating, and defending—but the body parts employed in these functions might be different, and the functions themselves might be executed differently. For example, some animals use claws to defend, others use teeth, while others use poisons. The differences in the functions are produced by the functional hierarchy, while the parts used for functions involve mapping the material parts to the material functions. They are two separate hierarchies but they are also combined in the body.

When consciousness leaves the body, the body stops functioning, even though you can still perceive the body parts such as head, legs, hands, stomach, etc. The reason is that the function is always separate from the parts and the relation between the part and the function varies even during this lifetime. However, since we don’t perceive the functions as objects, we cannot see how the function is an additional property of the part, not reducible to the parts.

The Hierarchy of Purposes

When the body parts are functioning, we must also ask ourselves about the purpose of this working. Why do living entities want to live rather than die? Why do we consider life better than death? And why do some people begin to prefer death over life? The key purpose of life is pleasure or enjoyment. We prefer life over death when there is abundant pleasure, and we prefer death over life when there is too much suffering. The pleasure of the soul is called ananda and it constitutes the “I want” tendency, which is embedded in matter as its purpose.

Every part of the body affords some or other pleasure, and the desire for pleasure pervades the body, and ultimately constitutes the purpose. The pleasures of the senses (eyes, skin, tongue, ears, and nose) are well-known. However, there is also pleasure is the senses of action. For example, some people enjoy running, others enjoy working with their hands, while yet others derive great pleasure from talking, sex, or defecation. The mind enjoys thought, the intellect enjoys analysis and judgment, the ego enjoys creating goals, and the moral sense enjoys the production and consumption of moral values. Body parts like the stomach create pain and suffering when hungry, and satisfaction and pleasure when full. There is much rejuvenation in the body through stable breathing and circulation, just as there is suffering.

If the desire for pleasure was killed, then the body parts could function, but there would no incentive for them to function. To keep the body incentivized, there is purpose embedded in the body as pleasure and pain. Unless we overcome this desire for pleasure, the body parts have to be kept functioning. However, just as there is a mapping between body parts and their functions, similarly, there is a mapping between the bodily functions and their associated pleasures. The simple act of touching another person can mean paternal, fraternal, or conjugal pleasure. Similarly, you can look upon a beautiful person with admiration, wonderment, or lust. The cognition of beauty is quite different from our disposition towards that beauty.

Materialism, Impersonalism, and Personalism

The “I am”, “I have”, and “I want” are three aspects of “I”. Owing to this fact, the living entity is called sat, chit, and ananda, respectively. The materialists don’t recognize function and purpose as material states; they just consider objects or parts as the only reality. Even within the parts, they reject the hierarchy, which means the “wholes” are illusory and the parts are real.

Effectively, therefore, modern science is inclined to study only the reflection of chit, while neglecting the reflections of sat and ananda. Even within the study of chit, they want to collapse the hierarchy of meanings and produce a world of meaningless objects governed by mathematical laws. But, of course, such a study has considerable limitations as we have seen above. If we collapse the hierarchy, we cannot explain how atoms get organized. If we remove the functional understanding, then we cannot explain how the organized parts perform their jobs. And if we remove purpose from matter, we cannot explain how we enjoy the body.

The impersonalists reject the material world produced from the chit tendency, and want to focus on the consciousness (sat). They have to begin with the recognition that there is a living body as opposed to a dead body—which is based on the fact that the living body functions. Many biologists therefore have adopted a functional study of the body, emphasizing a “systems view”, “cybernetic”, “process ontologies”, over the materialistic and reductionist thinking. The standard critique against these ideas is that you can perceive the parts as objects, but you need to conceive a new ontology—process, function, method—in order to support your view. This ontology can only be permitted if the object ontology proves inadequate. So, the debate now swerves into the question of whether the object ontology is sufficient, or needs to be supplanted.

Nevertheless, the impersonalist is not too concerned with the material ontology and can easily adopt the process, functional, or methodological ontologies in which matter, comprised of objects, is itself inert but it is animated by a “life force” which causes it to function. The yogis for example are not too concerned with the body parts, but only with the life force in the body which causes the parts to function. By rejecting the chit they want to focus on the sat.

The impersonalists are generally fond of talking about “I am” as the only reality. They think that “I want” is a material desire, and when this desire arises, “I have” a material body to fulfill the desires. Thus, “I have” is produced when “I am” combines with “I want”. So, if we get rid of “I want”, then we can also get rid of “I have”, and then we will be free of the material body.

This is not a bad idea, although it is ignorant of the fact that the soul has an innate desire and an eternal body. In other words, we cannot get rid of “I want”, although we can suppress it temporarily. Similarly, we cannot remain disembodied forever although we can withdraw our consciousness from all bodies—including the eternal body. The impersonalists are therefore described to exist in a temporary state in Brahman from where they fall down.

Some people think that there is an “I” separate from “I am”, “I have” and “I want”. This is a mistake. The “I” is nothing but “I am”; that is, the “I” is aware of its own existence, and therefore it is not just “I” but “I am” with the awareness of the existence of the self. There is no such thing as “I” which is not “I am”—i.e. a person unaware of his own existence. In Western philosophy this is enshrined in the Cartesian dictum cogito ergo sum, which means that I can doubt everything but I cannot doubt my own existence. The very ability to doubt means that I am aware of my existence. In that sense, all experiences entail my awareness of myself.

How the Soul is Reflected in the Body

Every part of the material body is simultaneously comprised of the three aspects—“I am”, “I want”, and “I have”. Take your brain, for example. It is comprised of different regions, which are in turn comprised of molecules, which are in turn comprised of subatomic particles. Due to this composition, we can say that my brain has a frontal lobe, a parietal lobe, an occipital lobe, etc. This constitutes the “I have” aspect of the brain—i.e. parts within parts.

But the parts of the brain also play a role or function due to which some parts become vision, while other parts become speech, and yet other parts become motor control. This functional designation of the parts constitutes the “I am” feature of the consciousness.

Each part can also create a pleasure associated with a body part and function. For example, I can say that I enjoy music—where the pleasure is tied to the ears and the surrounding which provides the music. The pleasure associated with the part and function constitutes “I want”.

Each part of the body has some function, and each function has some purpose. In the body, the “I have”, “I am”, and “I want” aspects of the soul are mixed in such a way that we could be forgiven for thinking that the parts are themselves the function, and the function is itself the pleasure. And yet, they are separate because they constitute different concepts.

Consciousness and Conflicts

The evidence of their difference comes from conflicts between them. For example, if the part of my brain that performs the function of motor control worked exactly the same way all the time, then I would never spill water while pouring it into a glass. If the part of my brain that performs the function of auditory cortex worked the same way always, then I would never hear incorrectly. Similarly, if my tongue (part and function combined) always had the desire for tasting the same thing, then I would never require to eat more than one dish. And if my ears (part and function combined) always desired the same sound, I would not need a second sound.

The difference between sat, chit, and ananda is evidenced from the fact that they can conflict. The evolution of the molecules in my brain can be observed easily. However, what can’t be observed easily is that the role played by different parts of the brain is also evolving over time, which means that there isn’t necessarily a fixed brain part for seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching, although in most people the function is performed roughly in the same place. It is now well-known through neuroscience that it is impossible to isolate a function to a specific part, although we can still speak about some typical areas of perception in the brain.

The Study of the Body in Biology

Anti-evolutionary biologists recognize a difference between the body parts, and the role they perform in the body. These are respectively called structure and function: the material hierarchy of parts is the structure, and the job performed by each part is called the function. The mystery is that the same kinds of cells and molecules make up most parts of the body and yet these parts behave differently. The material parts are like an actor playing different roles in a drama. Similarly, even if the structure and function are fixed—and the parts can function in the same way—they may not, because the part now has a different intent, purpose, goal, or desire.

We are able to observe the material body and its structure, but we are unable to observe the functional and intentional states, which are also material, just not the structural matter. This idea generates much debate in biology because scientists don’t understand that there are three basic categories—originating from sat, chit, and ananda—and science studies matter corresponding to chit but cannot perceive the reality corresponding to sat and ananda. The reason is that sat and ananda are role and goal, which are overtly “subjective” while chit as concepts includes material objects and thus appears to be “objective”. Physical concepts are incapable of anything subjective. And therefore they are completely incapable of dealing with sat and ananda. Physical concepts can, however, reduce a world of varied meanings to a few physical properties. In that sense, physical concepts can (within limits) describe chit, but not sat and ananda.

Biology is therefore incomplete because it requires three constructs to describe the embodiment of the sat-chit-ananda soul in the body, but we have only one—structure. People sometimes ask: Can you prove the existence of the soul scientifically? The short answer is that yes we can prove, and the proof is that structural matter is inadequate to describe scientific phenomena. The structure has to be complemented by two other kinds of matter—function and intention. With these three kinds of matter, we can talk about structures that perform functions for some intents or goals. Without the function and intent, the structure is incomplete, and the reason is that the soul has three aspects but science captures only one and that too incompletely.

The denial of the soul therefore translates into a scientific problem where we are trying to reduce the material body to molecules, and in that process we ignore the function and intention, which too are material, just not the molecules. Even the molecules have to be described as symbols of meaning—which means that they exist as possibilities converted into observables (the well-known Quantum Measurement Problem). But even if we provide a semantic theory of atomism, biology would still be incomplete without the study of function and intention.