On the new book God and the World’s Arrangement: Readings from Vedanta and Nyaya Philosophy of Religion, which presents two takes on the argument that God must exist because the world is a “product.” The first is excerpted from the Brahma-sūtra (a.k.a. the Vedānta-sutra, compiled ca. the 2nd century C.E.) verses 2.2.1-2.2.10 with commentary from Śaṅkara (710 C.E.) and Vācaspati Miśra (960 C.E.). The second presents an extended argument by Vācaspati on the (maybe as old as the 2nd century B.C.E.) Nyāya-sūtra. Mark, Seth, and Wes are joined by one of the three translators of the book, Stephen Phillips, who taught until recently at The University of Texas, your hosts’ graduate school alma mater. (The others being Nirmalaya Guha and Matthew Dasti.)
The argument is very similar to the Western argument from design as put forward by William Paley and criticized by David Hume. The world is a complex and particular arrangement of pieces, like a watch (Paley’s example) or a pot or palace (examples from our readings). What makes these arguments different, aside from their much greater age, is the context: The theological, philosophical, and technical apparatus that these figures draw on. To point at a technical feature: The kind of syllogisms (formal logic) employed in Indian philosophy at this time have a particular structure. An Aristotelian (Western) syllogistic version of this argument might say “Everything that is evidently designed must have a designer. The world sure looks evidently designed. Therefore there was a designer: God!” The Indian version uses this form instead:
- The natural world (bodies, trees, mountains, etc.) has a designer [so you start by stating what you want to prove]
- …Because it involves a lot of little pieces put together in a certain, careful way.
- Anything that has a lot of little pieces put together in a careful way has a designer, like a pot does.
- The natural world falls under the generalization in #3.
- Therefore it has a designer
The key difference here is in #3, i.e. the universal claim. Where Aristotle’s form just makes this claim as a premise, the Indian form insists that you provide an example to ground it, which gives a couple of clear ways to counter-argue. Maybe the example given is actually bad; it doesn’t establish the universal claim, or perhaps even supports its opposite. Or even if the example is good, maybe the thing you’re arguing about isn’t sufficiently like it to be able to establish #4, i.e. that what you’re arguing about is covered by the universal claim.
The two texts from our reading present this argument differ in who’s writing the argument, and who they’re arguing against, since another stylistic feature of the argumentation is that after stating something like the above, to consider objections, giving someone else’s view (typically without attribution) in as strong a form as possible for rebuttal.
Both the Vedānta and Nyāya schools were philosophers working off the basis of Hindu holy texts: The Vedas (some of which are as old as 1500 B.C.E. and mostly just describe ritual practices), The Upaniṣads (later Vedic texts that lay out most of the beliefs of modern Hinduism: think around 800 B.C.E.), and the Bhagavad Gita (which wikipedia dates to the 2nd century B.C.E.; Phillips gave us a date of 400 during the episode; we discussed this text in our ep. 204).
The Vedic schools (there are six of them) started as different interpretive strands which were then codified via the sutras, which are made up of terse aphorisms. Philosophers in these schools would subsequently write commentaries to flesh out the meanings of these aphorisms, and sometimes to digress into related philosophical topics. As with the Talmud, in these traditions a philosopher would append his commentary to previous commentaries on that sutra, such that, for instance, Vācaspati’s Nyāya text has a title that can be literally translated as Notes on the Gloss on the Commentary on Nyāya, because it includes his additions to the prior commentaries of Vātsyāyana (from the 2nd or 3rd century C.E.) and Uddyotakara (from the 6th century C.E.).
The Vedāntins (Śaṅkara being one of the most famous) are often characterized as mere textual interpreters, given that the Brahma-sūtra explicitly aims to systemize the teachings of the Upaniṣads. God and the World’s Arrangement takes pains to argue that Śaṅkara really was a philosopher, giving original, robust arguments and not just scriptural interpretations. Śaṅkara’s sub-school within Vedānta is called Advaita or “non-dual,” because their main tenet is that everything is Brahman: We are all underlyingly One, i.e. God. Like Buddhism, then, Advaita Vedānta implies that most of our experience and models of the world are ultimately illusory.
Discovering intellectually and then internalizing the fact that you are Brahman is the key to release from desire, suffering, and the cycle of rebirth. Some of this just involves meditation, but supporting this doctrine with reason is important too. So there’s a puzzle here: If everything is God, then why say that there’s one particular Creator who’s the architect of it all? The Sanskrit word for the Creator here is īśvara, not Brahman, and Śaṅkara, for one clearly argued that it, like the self, is something that really exists as part of our world, or in God’s case as part of science: It provides the best explanation for the way we find the world. Ultimately we’re all conditioned by a veil of illusion that prevents us from seeing that we’re really Brahman, and if we were to get beyond that to a truly divine point of view, then there would be no selves and no īśvara. However, since that point of view is not something that’s available to us humans, we can truthfully say that there is a īśvara that created the natural world.
Alongside this background, we need to understand for this first half of the book who Śaṅkara and Vācaspati were arguing against: The Sāṃkhya school, which reads the Upaniṣads as saying that there’s (instead of Brahman) a primordial matter that just shapes itself into the world spontaneously. Now, even though it’s spontaneous, it does this according to the needs of people in their attempts to escape the cycle of rebirth. The Brahma-sūtra and its commentators argue that this makes no sense: Primordial matter couldn’t just move itself without already having some differentiation or something within itself. The Sāṃkhya cosmology says that this primordial matter is made up of the three guṇas. This term literally just means “attributes” or “qualities,” but the gunas are specifically identified as pleasure (sattva), passionate activity (rajas), and dark inertia (tamas), i.e. they’re moral qualities that express things about being stuck in the cycle of rebirth. The undifferentiated, primordial matter becomes particular things because human karma, like a magnet, reaches out over a distance to put the gunas out of balance, and so the particular furniture of our world appears! Our Vedāntins were mystified about how this could possibly work as described. Even though Sāṃkhya has provided a reason for the universe to form (i.e. to fulfill the demands of karma) and an alleged mechanism (the gunas being out of balance), there must be some divine intelligence that knows what karma demands and uses the levers of the universe (whether they be gunas or something else) to actually make it happen.
In the second half of the book we get an example of Nyāya natural theology, and the only text actually given is from Vācaspati Miśra. Yes, he was also a commentator to the Brahma-sūtra, but he was an outlier comfortable in many schools: “one for whom all systems are his own,” and so maybe not actually a member of any of those schools (though Phillips during the discussion says that the Vedāntin work was toward the end of his life and may represent his end point). In any case, Nyāya is an earlier school with the Nyāya-sūtra probably being a few hundred compiled a few hundred years earlier than the Brahma-sūtra. The word nyāya can be translated as “critical reasoning,” and this school established Hinduism’s epistemology and formal logic (building on and reacting to earlier Buddhist logic), including the syllogistic form described above. The Nyāya basic metaphysics was not Brahman or primordial matter made of gunas, but instead atoms, and so instead of īśvara emanating the world out of Himself, He had this eternally existing passive matter (the atoms) and allegedly put them in the arrangements that make up the world. The key to this argument is that God must be someone who knows these materials in order to put them together. The blind forces of physics or karma wouldn’t by themselves have any such knowledge, so there must be a knower, and given that there is so much to know, that knower must be godlike.
The Nyāya’s opponents in this argument were Buddhists and another one of the Vedic schools, Mīmāṃsā, which ironically objected to a creator God because they were the most conservative school, and so worshipped the Vedas, i.e. the texts, themselves that they believed these Vedas to themselves be eternal. To posit an īśvara that created them would be irreverent! The relevant text from these opponent schools (by Dharmakīrti and Kumārila respectively) are given in an appendix to the book.
So why did all this happen so far earlier than in the West? Well, primarily because of the popularity of Buddhism and other atheistic philosophies. Where in our Bhagavad-Gita episode, we were concerned that we were just reading a bunch of religious dogma, where the non-believers wouldn’t be deemed worthy of serious response, by this point writers in these theistic schools couldn’t take heresy for granted, because their numerous opponents thought themselves to be channeling divine revelation and referencing great sages as well. Another factor is the sheer mass of the Vedic texts and how little philosophical pretense is in them: It’s typically possible to find a passage in some scripture or other that you can interpret in support of your favored position. Of course, since the scriptures were all agreed that there is reincarnation that reflects human karma, you’re not going to find any of these Vedic philosophers denying that, so there were limits to the range of their views. Given that that world-view underlies an ethics that supported the caste system and a general attitude of “you deserve what you get,” that groupthink was politically unfortunate.
Buy God and the World’s Arrangement directly from Hackett’s website and use the code SPRING21 before June 30 to get 20% off with free US or Canadian shipping. This coupon will also work on Stephen Phillips and Matthew Dasti’s translation of much more of the Nyāya-Sūtra, which includes similar editing and commentary to make these difficult texts very accessible.
Our next episode is on Johann Fichte’s The Vocation of Man (1799), whose Hackett translation from 1987 by Peter Preuss is also covered by that coupon.
For an easy way to learn more about these schools, listen to Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy in India podcast series. The subsection “Age of the Sutra” covers all of these, including separate, short episodes on the Brahma-sūtra, Advaita Vedānta, logic and epistemology in the Nyāya-Sūtra, and Sāṃkhya cosmology.
Near the end, Stephen mentions the 14th century Nyāyic philosopher Gaṅgeśa; you can read Stephen’s article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as well as one on Epistemology in Classical Indian Philosophy. He also mentions a school of ancient Indian materialists who did make fun of the whole machinery of liberation as well as theism: The Lokāyatas.
To hear more from Stephen, like how he got into studying this kind of philosophy in the first place, you can watch this recent, lengthy interview from Meru Media.
Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
The image was compiled from things on the web by Aswin Subanthore, who thought that Genevieve Arnold’s puppets were disrespectful. See what you think: