Debunking Arguments For God Found In Classical Indian Philosophy
Many classical Indian philosophers, driven to ideological defense of the Vedas as divine manifestation, were among a long tradition of thinkers who ceremoniously presented arguments for the existence of god, first in response to the ancient Carvakas and later to the other Nastika schools that developed strains of Atheistic thought. Of the ones on record, the most sophisticated compilation of arguments came from Udayana (Udayanācārya), the 10th century Indian philosopher who unified and reformed the Old Nyaya and the Vaisheshikaschools of Indian Logic, to found the Navya Nyaya (literally New Nyaya) school. Udayana famously attempted to prove the existence of god using nine arguments. Logic and modern science render these arguments impotent.
It should be noted that all of Udayana’s arguments (listed below) can be rebutted conclusively using nothing but the empiricist logic contained within certain philosophical schools of the period and of the centuries before, such as the later Lokayata school and some traditions of Buddhist thought. Indeed, these arguments for god most certainly were conclusively rebutted by the Atheists of the day, as evidenced by the fact that specific counter-arguments are known to have been quite common in the philosophical discourse of the period. But let’s not allow the fact deny us the satisfaction that comes with shining the light of modern scientific logic and naturalistic philosophy on these ancient arguments for god.
I will list Udayana’s arguments and provide a short rebuttal below each. The arguments are taken from this page on Wikipedia, which cites this book as the source. I understand that all of Udayana’s arguments taken from the above cited source are terse pronouncements presented without any extended context, and I’d be happy to be corrected if my interpretation of any of the arguments turns out to be wrong, provided this correction is devoid of all citation-free claims about the translation/context, evidence-less claims about reality, and common logical fallacies.
So, here we go!
- 1. Kāryāt (lit. “from effect”): An effect is produced by a cause, and similarly, the universe must also have a cause. Causes (according to Naiyayikas) are of three kinds: Samavayi (in case of the universe, the atoms), Asamavayi (the association of atoms) and Nimitta (which is Ishvara). The active cause of the world must have an absolute knowledge of all the material of creation, and hence it must be god. Hence from the creation, the existence of the Creator is proved.
This argument is also known today as the Cosmological or First Cause argument for god, and is seen in practically all cultures, regardless of whether they had a strong classical tradition or not. Here are some points we can note:
a) If the universe has a cause and that cause is god, then that god must also have a cause. If you look at the entire argument it becomes obvious that such arguments do not really solve the problem posed by the question that the proponents believe to have answered! This is because they just move the question back one nonsensical step, and they do so with no evidence and offering no real information, verifiable data or testable predictions. This problem is known as infinite regress.
God is a mind-block for believers, as evidenced by this argument. The really irrational thing is believing that this supposedly causeless, all-powerful and unobservable thing called god is the reason why everything exists in the observable universe.
As a side note, modern physics suggests that it is meaningless to talk about a time before the universe came into existence, because time in our universe came into existence at the moment of the big bang. Recently a group of physicists led by Roger Penrose have proposed, after observing the patterns of cosmic microwave background found in the universe, that the beginning of our universe was the end of another universe. These conversations continue in the scientific realm. In any case, these scientific discussions do not make god necessary or logically coherent.
b) All we can reasonably infer from the laws of cause and effect is that there probably was a cause to the origin of the universe. Extrapolating from there to god is a logically incoherent leap in reason. Claiming god as the cause of the universe is positing an enormously complex, intelligent and powerful entity that we know nothing about to explain an inanimate universe that we know something about. The principle of parsimony known as Occam’s Razor dictates that this god is much less likely.
c) The argument squeezes god into a gap in our knowledge of the universe while ignoring all the phenomena that were once thought to be the work of god and are now understood in purely naturalistic terms. God as intelligent initiator of the big bang (which today we know as the starting point of our universe) is a “god of the gaps”. Essentially, this argument takes the form “I don’t know how something so complex could have come about through mechanistic processes, so it must have been created by god”. This is a leap in logic. This form of argument is called the argument from ignorance.
d) The premise that “the active cause of the world must have an absolute knowledge of all the material of creation” is false, and the argument is a tautology when used as proof of god- that is, its a circular argument. A tautology, or circular argument, is when at least one of the premises of the proposition under investigation assumes as true that which must be proven. In this case, the argument simply assumes that god must exist, and uses that assumption to “prove” that god exists.
Of the above-noted points (b) Implausibility and (c) god of the gaps errors repeat quite a bit throughout the arguments presented by Udayana. Also, almost all of Udayana’s arguments contain (d) circular reasoning.
- 2. Āyojanāt (lit., from combination): Atoms are inactive and properties are unphysical. So it must be God who creates the world with his will by causing the atoms to join. Self-combination of inanimate and lifeless things is not possible, otherwise atoms would only combine at random, creating chaos. There is to be seen the hand of a wise organizer behind the systematic grouping of the ultimate atoms into dyads and molecules. That final organizer is God.
In addition to making many of the same errors noted for the previous argument, this above argument is particularly fraught with a certain type of error that can simply be chalked to the fact that the premises underlying the arguments are influenced by beliefs from a pre-scientific period.
Again, positing that a complex intelligent god keeps atoms glued to each other violates Occam’s Razor. And again, god seems to have fallen in the gaps. Its amusing today to watch religious revisionists casually misappropriate the word ‘atom’, as though the scientific conception of the atom was what the mystics and philosophers of ancient India were talking about in the Vedas. To be fair, the word ‘atom’ can indeed be used in a generic form, but this usage is very different from the specific scientifically defined and established physical unit known as the atom.
The practice of science has led to the discoveries of different sub-atomic particles and forces responsible for the various inter and intra-atomic interactions that we know about today. The gap Udayana shoved god into is sealed shut, and all resident gods are dead.
Finally on this point, “self-combination” of inanimate and lifeless “things” happens all the time. It can be beautifully illustrated using crystals which self-combine into ordered and mathematical structures. It happens in the production and action of enzymes- proteins which are essential molecules for life on earth. Indeed, life is “created” by the actions of completely inanimate chemical reactions and processes guided by purely naturalistic organizational principles, as we know now thanks to modern science. We know today about how chemical bonds are formed between elements and molecules. We know a bit about the composition of atoms and how they interact with each other.
Scientists today study complexity as the emergence of unique behavior and organizational structure in a system, by the action of purely stochastic processes. Professor Vinod Wadhawan has written a fantastic series on this new science of complexity, specifically designed for the layperson.
At the time that Udayana’s arguments were made we knew nothing about dyads or molecules, let alone atoms. Which makes one wonder why these particular words were used by the translators. I suppose these particular modern and scientific terms could have been used simply for want of convenient words to describe certain ancient ideas, but the attempt to co-opt modern science here in the modern translations of pre-scientific arguments for god (while misrepresenting science) is unmistakable and even brazen.
- 3. Dhŗtyādéḥ(lit., from support): Just as a material thing falls off without a support, similarly, God is the supporter and bearer of this world, without which the world would not have remained integrated. This universe is hence superintended within God, which proves his existence.
This argument may seem laughable today, but let’s take it seriously for a bit to see how people’s minds operated at a time when certain facts about the universe were unavailable to them. Today we can comprehend a spherical planet with no objective up or down, and on which all things are pulled to its center. We can comprehend, at least in theory, the force of gravity that keeps us on earth, and the repulsive forces that prevent all the atoms on the planet from collapsing into each other. We can comprehend a vast universe filled with galaxies and planetary systems. And we can imagine how so much of our sensory reality, informed by a brain shaped by evolution on ‘middle earth’, is an illusion. But we can only imagine this ‘more-true’ reality because today we have the greatest amount of information that we humans have ever had about our universe, made available through science.
Science is the most powerful tool and the most magnificent achievement of the human imagination.
God is a failure of the human imagination.
Udayana’s argument from support is nothing but an utterance from ignorance.
- 4. Padāt (lit., from word): Every word has the capability to represent a certain object. It is the will of God that a thing should be represented by a certain word. Similarly, no knowledge can come to us of the different things here unless there is a source of this knowledge. The origin of all knowledge should be omniscient and, consequently, omnipotent. Such a being is not to be seen in this universe, and so it must be outside it. This being is God.
Udayana is starting to get a bit preachy now, which is usually a good bet that there is fuzziness afoot. This deliberate attempt at confusion creates the perfect smoke-screen for masking circular arguments.
We use words to represent many things, including objects. There is no need to invoke god in order to explain this fact. The entire argument is weirdly imagined. If I’m properly interpreting it, when Udayana talks about knowledge that “comes to us” he is not referring to the empirical (observable sensory) information that can scientifically be verified, but to some mysterious external source of knowledge that is all powerful.
The whole argument is one big tautology. Only if you buy into the idea that “It is the will of God that a thing should be represented by a certain word”, or that “ The origin of all knowledge should be omniscient and, consequently, omnipotent”, can you buy into the rest of the BS. This is begging the question! The argument begins with an assumption that it needs to prove! It is simply not reasonable to accept belief in god as an argument for god’s existence, which is exactly what this argument is asking us to do!
At the end Udayana resorts to a classic theology trick.
“Such a being is not to be seen in this universe, and so it must be outside it. This being is God.”
Let’s just say for argument sake that an omnipotent and omnipresent god is absolutely required for words to have meaning. Even given this ridiculous premise, how can one say anything at all about objects outside of the universe with absolutely certainty? What evidence is available to declare with such impunity that the unlikely being in question is a god? Udayana’s fifth argument doesn’t tell us, but it offers some insight into the motives behind his vigorous, flailing defense of the idea of a supernatural god.
- 5. Pratyayataḥ (lit, from faith): the Hindu holy scriptures, the Vedas, are regarded as the source of eternal knowledge. Their knowledge is free from fallacies and are widely believed as a source of proof. Their authors cannot be human beings because human knowledge is limited. They cannot obtain knowledge of past, present, and future, and in depth knowledge of mind. Hence, only God can be the creator of the Vedas. Hence, his existence is proved from his being the author of the Vedas, which he revealed to various sages over a period of time.
From here down the arguments are just plain dumb. Even during the time of Udayana it surely must have been silly for any serious philosopher to believe that the Vedas are absolutely correct about all the ideas contained within them. In any case, Udayana seems to be confused in making this argument from ‘Faith’, because while claiming to do so he actually makes objective claims about reality by talking about the supposed inerrancy of the Vedas. This is not faith at all, but rather a sneaky way of avoiding logical scrutiny by pretending to claim faith while actually suggesting that the inerrancy of the Vedas is proof of god. Of course, it can be argued that it is his claim about the inerrancy of the Vedas that he asks us to take on faith, which would just make this another form of circular argument.
- 6. Shrutéḥ (lit., from scriptures): The Shrutis, e.g., the Vedas extol God and talk about his existence. “He is the lord of all subjects, omniscient, and knower of one’s internal feelings; He is the creator, cause and destroyer of the world”, say the Shrutis. The Shrutis are regarded as a source of proofs by Naiyanikas. Hence, the existence of God is proved.
This is the most common form of tautology coming from religious apologists who defend god, usually Christian and Islamic apologists. “God is real because the book says so” is circular reasoning on a pretty low level of sophistication. Udayana also seems to have a wrong understanding of the meaning of the word ‘proof’, also apparent from his previous argument.
- 7. Vākyāt (lit., from precepts): Again, the Veda must have been produced by a person because it has the nature of “sentences,” i.e., the sentences of the Veda were produced by a person because they have the nature of sentences, just as the sentences of beings like ourselves. That person must have been God.
This is simply an extension of point 4, which argued that god is real because words have meaning. It is also related to points 5 and 6 because these three arguments (5, 6 and 7) proclaim the nature of the Vedas as proof of god, making them all tautologies.
- 8. Samkhyāviśeşāt (lit., from the specialty of numbers):According to the Nyaya, the magnitude of a dyad is produced by the number of two atoms. The number “one” is directly perceived but other numbers are created by perceptions, which is related to the mind of the perceiver. Since at the time of creation, souls, atoms, Adŗşţa (Unseen Power), space, time and minds are all unconscious, hence it depends on divine consciousness. So God must exist.
a) In today’s context this argument perpetuates a false interpretation of Udayana’s ancient conception of the smallest unit of matter, deliberately conflating that ancient notion with the modern scientific concept ‘atom’. The New Nyaya school is still extant, and much of the misappropriation of scientific words by the apologists must have first occurred in relatively recent translations of the original works.
b) The statement “The number “one” is directly perceived but other numbers are created by perceptions, which is related to the mind of the perceiver” is just pure BS. All numbers are conceptually interpreted by the brain. Objects in the natural world are perceived by the senses.
c) See this part of the argument: “Since at the time of creation, souls, atoms, Adŗşţa (Unseen Power), space, time and minds are all unconscious”. What nonsense! Creation, souls and unseen powers are all things for which proof must be offered. Udayana simply builds them into his arguments, assuming them to be true!
d) This part “….are all unconscious, hence it depends on divine consciousness. So God must exist” is so perfectly circular that its amazing how these philosophers could have kept a straight face while expounding so. All these things are unconscious, so they depend on god, so god exists. WTF?
e) The same part quoted above “….are all unconscious, hence it depends on divine consciousness. So God must exist” is an argument from ignorance- a god-of-the-gaps. It is of the form “I don’t know how all of this complexity we see in the universe could have come about due to mechanistic reasons, so it must have been god”.
f) Occam’s Razor is shamelessly violated.
- 9. Adŗşţāt (lit., from the unforeseen): Everybody reaps the fruits of his own actions. merits and demerits accrue from his own actions and the stock of merit and demerit is known as Adŗşţa, the Unseen Power. But since this unseen power is unintelligent, it needs the guidance from a supremely intelligent god.
We may all believe that, in a fair world, we should all reap the fruits of our efforts. But what the hell does that have to do with unseen powers? Merits and demerits are real and relative and can only be understood properly in each specific context. Moreover, there are factors that are out of our direct control, including our own genetics and much about the greater environment in which we exist, both of which are the arbitrators of the deck we are dealt.
The argument also resembles point 8 in form. All the criticisms of that point can be applied here, including circular reasoning, violation of Occam’s Razor and the argument from ignorance.
There are a whole lot of unnecessary assumptions in Udayana’s arguments, which probably is the answer to why Indian Philosophy was stuck in a rut for all those centuries after the golden age of reason in India during the early classical period. In modern times we have failed to revive our great philosophical traditions, mainly because we Indians are not formally educated about the relevance of philosophy in our political and socio-economic lives. Given that the great New (Navya) Nyaya logicians (along with the religious apologists who have dominated intellectual discourse for much of our history) dedicated their lives to making philosophy irrelevant to reality, the fact that most educated Indians don’t think philosophy is relevant to their lives is quite understandable. We need to cast out the rotten ideas in the history of Indian Philosophy and usher in a new Scientific Naturalism that celebrates great rational Indian minds of the past and great scientific Indian minds of our time. Failing this, we Indians will continue to remain passive observers at best and myopic participants at worst in regards to the important discussions of our day, such as those on the future of technology, ethics, society, government and culture.