ICSJP ►Many, One And None - Reflections On Science And Jaina Philosophy In The Indian Traditions

Posted: 23.10.2017

International Conference on Science and Jain Philosophy



Prof. Dr. Ranjit Nair Ph.D, M.S, B.Sc., (b. 1954) is the President of the World Institute for Advanced Study and the Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Foundations of Science (CPFS) New Delhi. He has written several articles and book reviews apart from writing three original monographs.


It is indeed a great honour for CPFS to be associated with the International Conference on Science and Jaina Philosophy, as the knowledge partner.

In the echo chamber that the traditions of learning in India represented, there were from the very beginning a number of voices in perpetual contention. The big questions concerning the nature of reality, the fundamental constituents of reality, the knowledge of reality accessible to sentient beings, the nature of sentience, the valid means that lead to knowledge of the real, the destiny of human and other beings, the nature of right conduct that led to the fulfillment of our destiny, were relentlessly debated over millennia. The traditions ranged over the whole philosophical spectrum encompassing ontology, epistemology, logic, ethics and soteriology.

If Plato could locate the origins of Greek philosophy in the questioning of the gods of Homer who displayed an all-too-human capriciousness, the origins of philosophy in India must be located as I have long maintained, in the open and unconstrained debate that took place between rival viewpoints from the very beginning. The so-called 'orthodox' traditions which owed allegiance to the Vedas were challenged by 'heterodox' traditions, creating a public sphere in which rival contenders debated questions and the canons of argument were developed to distinguish between valid arguments and fallacies. The freedom to speculate and argue with one another led traditions to ramify endlessly, both internally and externally, leading to a rich shared vocabulary and treasure trove of ideas which remain, in several areas, fecund to this day.

While Jaina philosophy became the standard-bearer of a thorough-going pluralism (anekāntavāda) with a dualism of aj va and j va, Vedānta was noted for its emphasis on monism with just one ātman which was the same as Brahman the essence of reality (Advaita), the Bauddha schools maintained that there was no atman (anātman). It is in the incessant jousts between philosophers of such varied persuasions that philosophy in India became a highly professional undertaking, requiring the study of opposing views which had to be stated fairly and accurately as the pūruapakṣa before it was methodically taken apart in debate. Philosophical writing in India was not required to have literary merit and when it did, no special virtue was attributed on that account. The format followed was to state the problem, then the solutions suggested by the pūruapakṣins, followed by a rebuttal, all in the most economical prose, much like modern scientific texts in which an impersonal style is adopted to suggest an objectivity in which the author's individuality is effaced. The apauruṣeyatua (impersonality) claimed for the Vedas was perhaps a forerunner of this trope. In the light of the counter position of reason and revelation that characterizes Western thought and which resulted in the persecution of the pioneers of the scientific revolution, it is perhaps worth noting that the Vedas were regarded as śruti which refers to what is heard by the novitiate directly from the preceptor, thus making it the original and unparished narrative, unmediated by commentaries.

The Jaina and Bauddha canons followed much the same demarcation between what was originally imparted by preceptors to their pupils, which subsequently became the object of commentaries, elucidations and glosses. The intensification of debates occurred when the Vaidikas, Jainas, Bauddhas, Ājivikas and Bārhaspatyas vied to establish their positions as valid based on argument (tarka), not the ipse dixit of preceptors. Remarkably these schools also taught astronomy, mathematics, medicine and even statecraft, all of which benefited from the rules of tarka-śāstra which commanded universal acceptance. From antiquity, down to recent times, the great centres of civilization had a flourishing trade in ideas as much as it did in commercial goods. The ground was prepared for the sixteenth century scientific resolution by Indian mathematics with its use of zero and the decimal place value system which made arithmetic child's play. The geometrical framework of the Greeks was leavened by the arithmetic, algebra and trigonometry that were carried by the Arabs from India to the West. A similar claim can be plausibly made for the 20th century scientific resolutions.

Few civilizations have shown the ability to exchange ideas freely and not feel threatened by scientific advances. In the Indian case, this feature was reinforced by the distinction between parā vidyā and aparā vidyā, transcendent knowledge and its everyday counterpart, adumbrated in the Mundāka Upaniṣad. The latter realm included even the four Vedas and six Vedāngas, which were regarded as propaedeutic, stepping stones to the knowledge of reality, which was virtually on par with advances in worldly knowledge in that it did not threaten transcendent knowledge that had sanctity and was linked both to theory and to meditative practices. The other-wordly and the this-wordly - the latter including the canonical texts as well - were placed in distinct realms. Modern science thus posed no threat and was eagerly embraced by our thinkers.

The power and prestige of modern science is such that even the most hallowed of ancient traditions seek to engage with it and even to enlist its support which is a sure sign that the victory of science is complete. From scientific studies of meditative states which commenced half a century ago, to ideas that overlap with modern science, the traditions of transcendence choose science as the universal yardstick of knowledge. This raises a plethora of questions. Science is notoriously fickle, yesterday's heresy could become today's dogma. It is knowledge based on the human senses and its amplification via instruments, which allows us to probe microscopic as well as macroscopic scales. It is irreverent and the community of seekers recognizes no rank or authority. A distinction between super sensory and sensory knowledge holds in science as homologues of instrumentally enhanced and unaided human cognition, which is not, however, adequate for traditions of transcendence, though I must confess I did at times find the temptation to hold such a view irresistible. Even more telling is the fact that the idea of alternatives to modern science sought in ancient traditions is also in thrall to science as we know it today. That is not meant to be a criticism of the traditions nor of modern science. The presiding genius of the 17th century scientific revolution, the incomparable Isaac Newton, was characterized by Keynes as the 'last of the great Magi'. Newton spent more time and energy on biblical prophecy, Judaeo-Christian theology and alchemy than in mathematical physics, making him a transitional figure between the old and the new philosophies of nature. Indeed Newton was an arcadian who thought that the ancients knew everything and that discoveries such as his must be in the Biblical

texts if only they could be properly deciphered, a task he felt compelled to do himself. To engage in dialogue with modern science, ancient wisdom must come to terms with this prominent tendency.

Even as our hallowed traditions have perforce to adapt to the modern world, it is not a one-way street. I recall an anecdote which an Indian student of Wittgenstein at Cambridge, K.J. Shah (whose Wittgenstein lecture notes have been published) narrated to me. Once as they were on a walk together, Wittgenstein stopped and turned round to ask Shah whether he was Muslim, which Shah denied. Wittgenstein then asked if he was Hindu, to which too his student gave the same answer. A perplexed Wittgenstein went on to ask him what his faith was, upon which he said he was Jain. Wittgenstein asked Shah what the Jain religion was about and the latter gave a somewhat distanced account of Jain beliefs, to which Wittgenstein reacted: "so you think you are cleverer than your ancestors, do you?" This conversation had a salutary effect on Shah who became one of India's leading philosophers in his time, as he began to explore our philosophical legacy on returning to India.

What can science learn from Jaina thought? One might plausibly argue that science as a body of organized reasoning that forever questions itself is the polar opposite of spiritual schools which exalt their scriptures to the level of unquestionable truth. Let me side-step the question of meditative practices and their effects on the human mind as that is a field that has been ploughed for quite a long time, indeed for at least half a century. My concern is with ideas and I ask whether modern science makes sense when viewed through the prism of Jaina philosophy. It is generally agreed that within Western philosophy, quantum theory is highly unconventional. Indeed, physicists like Bohr maintained that quantum theory makes great demands on human understanding and sought parallels in Eastern philosophy.

The Jaina concept of 'avaktavya' or 'inexpressible' which applies to statements in addition to the standard truth values, true and false, has parallels in quantum theory. In a double-slit experiment conducted with a weak beam of light that emits one photon at a time, one can either observe interference or establish through which slit the photon arrived at the screen. The concepts of a discrete quantum particle and that of an extended wave are distinctly at odds with one another. When wave-like properties are manifested, we are unable to say anything about the slit through which the photon passed. One is then led to the conclusion that it is avaktavya.

The dualism of aj va and j va mirrors the Cartesian divide which was essential for the scientific revolution which was able to treat the former as a closed causal system subject to natural law. The aj va consisted of pudgala (matter), dharma (dynamics) and adharma (statics), ākāśa (space) and kāla (time). Here, instead of translating dharma as the 'principle of motion' and adharma as the 'principle of rest' as many scholars do, I have substituted 'dynamics' and 'statics' respectively, which, while being accurate, resonate with the ideas of modern physics formulated in the scientific revolution. What is striking in this context is that j va or soul is an entity to which none of the qualifiers of ajīva apply. Hence j va is not a spatiotemporal entity nor is it subject to the causal order of dynamics or statics.

If the realms of the aj va and j va are so sharply differentiated, how do the two interact? This is a problem which all dualist ontologies, the Cartesian included, are confronted with. Descartes speculated on the possible locus of the interaction which he thought was the

pineal gland, without clarifying how such an interaction is possible at all. It was necessary in the Cartesian account for there to be such a connection in order to explain free will, which contrasted with the clockwork universe of matter. In the Jaina case, soteriology depends on removing through renunciation, defilements that obscure the j va, raising the parallel problem of how two entirely distinct orders of reality could impact one another. In view of the non-spatiotemporal and causal character of the j va, the Advaitin could argue that the ātman (which is the equivalent of j va) is in fact one. The Nyāya school suggests that the unity is in the genus or jāti, much as the Jainas suggest that the unity lies in all constituents sharing the property of existence. Bauddha schools avidly filled the gap left by the Buddha's silence about matters metaphysical. Mādhyamika philosophers like Nāgārjuna suggested that all conceptions are bedevilled by contradictions and the anātman doctrine stemmed from the apparent impossibility of describing the concept of the ātman consistently. The śūnyavāda was not nihilism, but an assertion that taken in isolation, the component entities posited by the theory were not in themselves part of reality, they partook of reality in a relational sense.

The shared set of concepts thus permitted a range of ontologies, from those populated by many entities, to one and to none. All three traditions began with a set of works accepted as the source of revelation, usually in groups of three. Alongside a logic of debate, tarka, philosophers employed the pramāna framework in which the sources of knowledge were laid out. While the sceptical Lokāyata philosophers accepted perception and disdained inference, the Jainas looked upon perception itself as a species of inferential knowledge. There was resistance to the use solely of tarka without authoritative starting points, such as the āgamas. The argument was the apratitiṣṭhatuam or instability of tarka. This epistemological practice is akin to accepting a set of axioms from which truths are deduced through the rules of tarka. This is true of science as well, with the exception that the instability induced by reason is accepted as a legitimate route to overthrowing old theories in the light of new evidence and theory, not always without resistance.

At the end of the 20th century, the first quarter of which saw the twin resolutions of relativity and quantum theory, a new revolution arose in cosmology, with the discovery that the expansion of the universe, far from slowing down as expected, had in fact gone into overdrive some 5 billion years ago, suggesting the existence of dark energy. Studies of galactic rotation curves showed that there had to be dark matter which interacted gravitationally. The matter of which the visible universe is made, turned out to be some 5% of the energy content of the universe, which is dominated by dark energy at 75%. No cosmological theory had anticipated such a profound revision in the understanding of our universe, if it had, it would have been dismissed as fanciful. Physicists in the 21st century have a huge challenge ahead of them and prima facie it is not clear what traditional philosophies can do to mitigate their plight. The epistemological tolerance of the Jaina schools could be an asset, were it to discourage physicists from holding excessively rigid views. As J.B.S. Haldane remarked, "the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose."

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