A Random Walk Through Perception
I have recently received several questions about Sāñkhya. These include the differences between senses and organs, that between inert matter and a living body, how desires influence perception, how Sāñkhya elements could be understood in analogy to motion, and the relation between yoga and the control of senses and the mind. These are not tightly interconnected topics, but I found a way on how to weave the answers together into a progressive ‘random walk’. Table of ContentsThe Property-Value DifferenceThe Body-Sense DifferenceThe Problem of QualiaSenses vs. OrgansDirect and Indirect InteractionThe Existence of DreamsThree Aspects of the SensesThe Transparency of Mental StatesMany Kinds of MotionSense and Mind Control The Property-Value Difference Today we are accustomed to thinking that the five senses, which produce the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell, are the five organs—namely, ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose. In Sāñkhya philosophy, a clear distinction between the body and the senses is made. The body is comprised of the five elements called bhumi, apah, anala, vayu, and kham, which are loosely translated into English as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. Unfortunately, due to overlap with everyday words by the same name, and the legacy of Greek elements by the same name, there is considerable confusion on what these elements are. The novelty in Sāñkhya comes from the fact that—unlike the Greek elements, which were just substances called by these names—in Sāñkhya they are described in relation to the five senses. The element Earth, for instance, is the objectification of the property of smell, Water is the objectification of taste, Fire is the objectification of sight, etc. To understand this objectification, we need to distinguish between a property and its value. For example, in modern science, we speak about the property ‘mass’ and its value such as ’10 kilograms’. Similarly, in the case of sense perception, there is a difference between a property such as color, and its value such as blue. The property is called tanmatra and the value is called bhuta in Sāñkhya. Sāñkhya and modern science are nearly identical in this respect; they postulate that the external world perceived by our senses has some properties and their values. However, in modern science, the physical properties need to be mapped to the properties which the observer can observe whereas in Sāñkhya, the perceived properties (taste, smell, color, etc.) are themselves objectively real. The Body-Sense Difference Once we understand the difference between tanmatra and bhuta or property and value, then we need to understand the difference between senses and the property or indriya and tanmatra. Each property is tied to a sense; for example, color is tied to seeing. Similarly, tone and pitch are tied to hearing, odor to smelling, etc. Likewise, each sense can detect many properties. For example, the sense of hearing can measure tone, pitch, and form. The sense of seeing can detect color, form, and size. Inert matter (such as a table or chair) is tanmatra and bhuta, without senses. The senses are matter too, but we cannot say that a table has the ability of seeing or tasting or touching. Therefore, in addition to inert matter, the living body has senses—called indriya—which gives it the power of sensation. A measuring instrument of science is only tanmatra and bhuta. For example, a kilogram is an instrument against which we measure mass, but the kilogram does not see or touch or smell. It is just bhuta attached to tanmatra without the senses that can perceive. A sense on the other hand is different from both bhuta and tanmatra, and it can see, taste, touch, smell, etc. The Problem of Qualia Many philosophers of mind question the modern materialism based on qualia or the qualitative feel of matter, such as the experience of color, taste, smell, and the experience of pain and pleasure. The debate arises because in science we model the world as physical properties rather than the properties by which we see, taste, touch, smell, or hear the world. So, we don’t say that a material object has taste or smell. We say that it has some mass and charge. Since the body is also comprised of this inert matter—i.e. tanmatra and bhuta—which are modeled as mass and charge, we find it very hard to explain how the world could be experienced as color, taste, smell, touch, sound, etc. The short answer to this problem is that matter itself must be understood in terms of tanmatra and bhuta, following which we must postulate another kind of matter—indriya—that sees, tastes, touches, smells, etc. If the indriya is sight, then tanmatra is color or shape, and bhuta is blue or square. So, describing inert matter in a different way opens the door to the understanding of sensation. Senses vs. Organs Our organs are comprised of bhuta and tanmatra. They are like measuring instruments of modern science, except that they measure the tanmatra rather than physical properties. For instance when the eyes see light, its color is represented as symbols of color codes—red, green, and blue—rather than mass, charge, energy, momentum, position, time, spin, or angular momentum. To understand how our body perceives, we need to change the material properties from physical properties to the sensual properties or tanmatra and bhuta. However, this by itself would not be sufficient. We are also required to add to the properties and their values the senses by which they are perceived. Unfortunately, the words used for the indriya are also used for organs. For example, the word chakshu is the instrument of seeing, and we translate it as ‘eyes’, which leads to the misunderstanding that the senses are the organs. However, during dreaming we don’t use the organs. Then how are we seeing? In Sāñkhya, we are seeing by the indriya rather than the organs. So, even if the organ is not working, the senses are still working, and they can interact with bhuta and tanmatra directly. Direct and Indirect Interaction During the waking state, our senses interact with the brain representation of the external world. For example, there is a representation of color created by the organs and the brain. The senses interact with this representation, which then results in an indirect sensation of the world because it is mediated by the organs and the brain. This indirect interaction with the world constitutes our waking state. During the dreaming state, however, the senses directly interact with the tanmatra and bhuta in the external world rather than the tanmatra and bhuta in the brain. So, the senses can directly attach to the external world, and that direct interaction—unmediated by the brain and the organs—constitutes the dreaming state. The senses can, for example, attach to bhuta and tanmatra beyond a person’s brain. However, the senses are still in contact with the brain and the organs, even though they are not being used for perception. Therefore, the movement of the senses—as they attach from one object to another—is reflected in the brain and the organs as well. As a result, during dreaming, even though the organs and the brain are not being used for perception, there is eye movement and brain activity. Sometimes a dreaming person may shout or talk, or move their head or limbs. Neuroscientists interpret this to mean that the brain is the cause of the dream, which creates a problem because using this explanation requires us to further explain why sleep triggers this hallucination. The Existence of Dreams In modern science we give an extraordinary emphasis to the waking state and consider that to be the main source of scientific knowledge. In Sāñkhya, however, the waking state is considered the most inferior level of conscious experience. There are three other states—called dreaming, deep sleep, and transcendent—which are successively responsible for even higher forms of knowledge. Now, some of you might say that sleeping is associated with ignorance and inertia. So, how can it be considered a superior state of consciousness? The short answer is that in the waking state our perception is dependent on the body—i.e. the brain and the organs. So, it is very tempting to think (based on this waking state) that our perception is being produced by the brain and the bodily organs. This is indeed how modern science thinks. However, when you get into the dreaming state, you realize that you have perceptions even though you haven’t been using the bodily organs for perception. If dreams are understood, then we realize that our senses are different from the body. So, the dreaming state is superior than the waking state because through dreams we acquire the first empirical insight that there is more to perception than the body (i.e. the brain and the organs). Trying to explain perception based on the body alone not only leads to the problem of qualia, but also to the second serious issue that during dreams our organs are not actually being used. The main issue with the idea of senses is that we cannot observe the senses using the senses, because what we see through the senses is bhuta and tanmatra and not the indriya. This leads us to the paradox that the things by which we see cannot themselves be seen. So, now we require another kind of instrument which can measure the indriya, just like the indriya measure bhuta and tanmatra. Such an instrument is called the manas or mind, which moves from one sense to another. As we discussed in the previous post, each sense can measure a different property, but the object is the combination of all these properties. So, to know all the properties, something must move the attention, and that attention moving instrument is the mind that focuses on different senses one by one. Three Aspects of the Senses Our senses are not always interacting with the bhuta and tanmatra. Even though our eyes may be open, we might not see. Even though sound may reach our ears, we might not hear. This leads to the question about how ‘attention’ is created. Apart from this silent discarding of sense data, there is active seeking of sensation. For example, we seek certain types of sounds, colors, tastes, smells, etc. This active seeking is due to our desires, and the senses have a hunger for sensation. Anyone who has tried to control the senses and the mind realizes that it is a very difficult process. Why should sense control be difficult if senses are only measuring instruments that observe the world? Both the absence of attention when sensations could be present, and the active pursuit of sensations when they may not be present, requires us to expand our understanding of senses and divide it into three parts, which correspond to the three tendencies of the soul—namely, sat, chit, and ananda. The chit is the easiest to understand; it represents the concept of sight and the activity of seeing (the chit is said to have knowledge and action components). The activity of seeing is a causal interaction between the organ and the external reality. The result of this interaction is the knoweldge representation. We combine the two to say that chit involves knowledge and activity. However, to perceive something, we must attach the sense to the tanmatra and the bhuta. We don’t see when the eyes are open because the sense doesn’t attach to the representation. Similarly, the senses may see, but the mind might put this sensation into the ‘background’ mode. For example, you may be vaguely aware of other voices while talking to someone in a crowded room. Thus, due to the movement of the mind (over the different senses) we may ignore some sensations that exist in the world. Similarly, due to motion of the senses, I may not hear someone’s voice because my ears are focusing on another person’s voice. The motion of the mind is different from the motion of the senses, but they produce similar kinds of effects. The motion of the senses over different sense perceivable bhuta and tanmatra represents sat or what we call ‘consciousness’. Similarly, the motion of the...
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