Sat: Truth, Reality, and the Sound of a Tree Falling

Have you ever heard the Sanskrit word “Sat” before? Hold that thought for a minute, let’s start with movie time-

In the opening to the film Cloud Atlas, there is a discussion that goes on between two characters, Adam Ewing and the Reverend Horrox. They’re discussing the ways of the world and the writings of Ewing’s father, Haskell Moore, who has apparently written on the subject. Ewing mentions a certain part of the tract-

“… it is an inquiry concerning God’s will and the nature of men. The question he does pose is: if God created the world, how do we know what things we can change, and what things must remain sacred and inviolable?”

This, I believe, is a fascinating question. Let’s remove the sacred element here and rephrase the question-

“What things in the world can be changed, and what things cannot be changed?”

This may seem, at first, to be something of a simple question, but we will soon see that this is not the case.

There is a mantra that I am quite fond of (I have the first line tattooed on my forearm) in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (one of the oldest Hindu scriptures) called the Pavamana Mantra. The mantra reads as follows-

Om asato mā sad gamaya,

tamaso mā jyotir gamaya

mṛtyor mā amṛtaṃ gamaya,

Om shanti shanti shanti

This translates to:

Om, Lead me from ignorance to the Truth,

Lead me from darkness to the Light,

Lead me from death into Immortality,

Om peace peace peace

(Fun side note: this is where they got the lyrics for Navras from the Matrix series.)

As I said before, we won’t be touching on any sort of religious element here, so we’re going to be examining this through a secular lense. The reason I mentioned this mantra is to illustrate a fascinating distinction between English and Sanskrit here with the first line-

“A – sat – o – mā sad-gamaya” can be translated into English in two separate ways. The first is as above, “Lead me from ignorance to the Truth.” The second, however, is “Lead me from the unreal to the Real.” Where in English we have a distinction between Truth and Reality, in Sanskrit, both are “Sat.” Thus, “ignorance” and “the unreal” are both “a – sat,” (with the “a-” indicating the opposite of “sat”). (There are many more definitions of “Sat,” which we may touch on in a bit.)

This may seem like a small distinction, but it’s actually supremely important- what this indicates is that somewhere in the philosophical foundations that supported English-speaking countries, a dichotomy between what is “true” and what is “real” exists. (Realistically, this is probably due to the Enlightenment era philosophers, but I’m not going to get into that for the sake of brevity.) You may be wondering why this matters, and rightfully so. Think about these two questions:

“What is real, but not true?”

“What is true, but not real?”

I’m not going to attempt to guess what your answer to these questions is. However, I do want to point out that (as far as I can consider) there should not be any in the first place. If you did come up with a few answers, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing- it just means we have something to investigate.

One argument is that anything that isn’t physical isn’t real (this ideology is called materialism). Materialism proposes that everything in the universe (including consciousness) is strictly the result of the interactions of matter. There is a counterargument, called Idealism, that suggests that the mind (subjective thought) comes before the brain, and that the world of things comes from the mind, not the other way around.

This debate, I believe, is no different from the separation of “Sat” into both “Real” and “True,” and this is why I brought it up. I believe that mind and matter are inherently connected, and I will demonstrate this with a famous question:

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Take a moment to think about this question before you continue reading.

The two traditional answers to this question are:

Materialism: Sound is the subjective experience of air vibration (caused in this case by the falling tree), so- no, there is no sound heard because there is no observer.

Idealism: Nothing exists without an observer, so if no one is there to hear it, no tree is there to fall.

Both of these answers, however, are flawed. The materialist explanation is more of a way around the question with semantics, and the idealist explanation doesn’t really explain how trees could fall when no one is around (because you can walk into any forest and find fallen trees that, presumably, no one watched.) However, I think the problem is not so much with these answers, it is with the question. Let’s ask a different one-

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, what is a tree?”

Imagine you’re standing beside a pine tree. You can see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your hands, you can smell the scent of the pine (you know how I feeeeel…), you can taste it if you feel so compelled to lick a tree, and you can hear it (if it were to fall on you at that moment). Your knowledge of this tree is limited entirely to your sensory perceptions of it, which your brain combines into a single concept in your mind that you will label “pine tree.”

Now, say you leave the forest. Because you still exist, the concept of the tree still exists- consider the fact that the pine tree you just imagined is imaginary, and different from any pine tree you’ve ever seen. Because existence moves on unchanged, the tree is fully capable of falling with no one hearing it, so the vibration never gets experienced as a sound.

Let’s go deeper. Imagine, or at least, try to imagine, a universe that has no consciousness in it. A tree, insofar as we covered it, is only comprehensible with sensory perception. A universe with no observer would theoretically be an indistinguishable sea of waves of energy. No qualities could be observed, because there is no observer and quality is subjective. The idea is beyond imagination- literally. The only thing we can not think about is the absence of consciousness (because thinking about it means you’re conscious). This would be a purely materialistic universe.

The opposite of this would be pure consciousness with no external stimuli (which is a big part of a philosophy called solipsism). Close your eyes and imagine never having seen, felt, tasted, smelled, or heard anything in your life. Think about what that would be like- but don’t use any words, you wouldn’t know words. Just empty all the thoughts from your mind- of course, you wouldn’t have a concept of thought or mind, because those are words that distinguish the two.

The trick here is that consciousness that doesn’t interact with external stimuli would literally not be conscious. There would be no change, no experience, no interaction- at all. Pure awareness doesn’t make sense if there is nothing to be aware of.

These two opposite approaches, however, could theoretically still have “existed” (I’m using that term very loosely here) in some alternate universe. However, these are both completely nonsensical, incomprehensible, unimaginable concepts. Whether or not they are real or true does not matter (because it’s impossible to determine)- they are (literally) irrelevant.

I use the word irrelevant here to indicate something that is only capable of being imagined, not experienced. These two concepts have no possibility of being experienced, and since we are beings of experience, they’re not useful to us at all. They’re irrelevant to anything we will ever do in our life. This brings us to the answer to the question, which we will rephrase into a statement:

“In a universe without an observer, there can be no trees.”

Here we find the solution to the dichotomy between materialism and idealism- there may very well be universes that have no observer (a real universe), and observers with no universes (a true consciousness), but they’re irrelevant. The only universes that matters are those that are have the interaction between the objective (the real) and the subjective (the true). Because the others are irrelevant, as far as our universe is concerned (the only relevant one, in my opinion), real and true are the same. Thus, we get “Sat,” and we escape the trap of dualistic thinking, at least in this case.

Let’s get back to the definitions of the word “Sat.” From Wikipedia’s list:

  • “absolute truth”
  • “reality”
  • “that which has no distortion”
  • “unchangeable”
  • “that which is beyond distinctions of time, space, and person”
  • “Supreme Entity”
  • “that which pervades the universe in all its constancy”
  • “Brahman” (not to be confused with Brahmin)

With the understanding that our universe is relevant, the word “Sat” applies to it. Because we have seen that things that lack the quality of being “Sat” are irrelevant, they can be called “Asat.” This means that the core experience of being, which is “Sat” is also “unchangeable,” which is another of the definitions- if we were to change it, it would become irrelevant, and thus, “Asat.”

Finally, we are left with the answer to the our modified version of the original question-

“What things in the world can be changed, and what things cannot be changed?”

Any part of our experience of the universe that, if changed, would lead to a universe or an experience of being that is “Asat” or irrelevant is thus unchangeable. Anything that we experience in the universe that could be changed without causing the overall nature of reality to become invalidated can be changed- a tree may fall in the forest without anyone hearing it, and the world keeps spinning.

The real question that we are left with is-

“What rules can we break?”
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