Jain “Scientific Realism”

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Jain “Scientific Realism”
By Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD

In some ways, the Jain tradition can be thought of as a scientific exploration of reality. For example, we can think of the Jain tradition as asking various “research questions.” The basic research question of the Jain tradition is “Mukti-marga,” the “path to liberation, which proposes the research question of “how can we live in such a way that we will free ourselves from suffering?” The research method proposed to answer this research question is the research method of the Three Jewels (ratna-traya). These “jewels” are (a) right perception (samyag-darśana), (b) right knowledge (samyag-jñāna), and (c) right conduct (samyag-cāritra). Following this “research method” will yield not only answers about our place in reality with respect to suffering, but by will also yield research answers about the nature of reality (tattva and dravya), and the various ways that our research methods will become increasingly complex (e.g. as we advance through the guṇa-sthāna-s). 


Other “research questions” that the Jain tradition answers may be as follows: “Do we experience reality as it is? Or, “do we just live in our own mentally-constructed model of reality?” Also, “can we know what reality is beyond our own mental constructs?” To answer these questions, we will examine the following Jain ontological commitment, or what the Jain tradition proposes is “real.”  


Jain Ontological Commitment

Previously, I have established that Jain Dharma is a school of ontological pluralism (see “The ‘Pluralistic’ and ‘Non-theistic’ Reality of Jains”) rather than monism. Now we begin to examine the various categories of a variety of “real” entities. 

One basic term that Jains use for the plurality of categories is dravya, or “substances.” Thus, the “Analyses of Substances” (dravya-mīmāṃsā) would be an analysis (mīmāṃsā) of the “Arrangement of Substances” (dravya-vyavasthā, see “An Introduction to Jain Philosophy,” AIJP, 2019, 83). 

As above, we might categorize all dravya-s as: (1) arūpī-jīva—non-material & sentient souls or jīva-s, (2) rūpī-ajīva—material and non-sentient “matter” (pudgala), and (3) arūpī-ajīvi that which is non-material and non-sentient (some objects of study for modern sciences) (AIJP 2019, 85). These are the entities that Jains propose are objectively “real.” To illustrate: 

(1) arūpī-jīva—non-material & sentient souls or jīva-s, 

(2) rūpī-ajīva—material and non-sentient “matter” (pudgala), 

(3) arūpī-ajīvi—that which is non-material and non-sentient

(3.a) “motion” (dharma)

(3.b) “rest” (adharma

(3.c) “space” (ākāṣa)

(3.d) “time” (kāla)

Scientific Realism Vs. Scientific Anti-realism
Some modern philosophers maintain a position of “scientific anti-realism.” This is the position that the objects of scientific inquiry are “mere mental-constructs,” which are “mind-dependent,” and “subjectively constructed,” and are therefore unreal. Even some modern scientists themselves are scientific anti-realists because this philosophy holds that we cannot know reality apart from our own mentally constructed, internal, subjective models of reality. Scientific anti-realism may still allow for science to be the best means of knowing or operating within the world, but this position is skeptical that we can know anything more than our subjective mental imaginings of realty. 

On the other hand, we can say that Jain Dharma can be taken as, at least to some extent, a form of “scientific realism,” which means that the objects studied by science are real, mentally independent entities, even if they are not strictly material, such as the classical laws of mechanics represented by modern science as mathematical principles. Indeed, we might concur with Parveen Jain’s (who is trained as a nuclear physicist) that for Jain Dharma “the outcome of knowledge is science” (vijñāna, “An Introduction to Jain Philosophy, 2019, 59) and that “Jain philosophy is based on observable facts, so from that perspective, it is similar to modern science” (AIJP 2019, 83). As a school of “scientific realism,” these findings of Jain philosophy lead to knowledge of real entities, apart from mere mental constructions.  

For example, there are four basic subcategories under of arūpī-ajīvi (that which is non-material and non-sentient, #3 above). Two of these include an understanding of inertia similar to Newton’s first law of mechanics. By this, Jain Dharma is “realist about” (3.a) “motion” (dharma), similar to Newtons idea that “an object in in motion tends to stay in motion.”  Further, Jain Dharma is realist about (3.b) “rest” (adharma) similar to Newton’s idea that “an object at rest tends to stay at rest.” Here, “motion” (dharma) and “rest” are non-material (arūpī) themselves but are nonetheless real. 

Further, Jain scientific realism extends to a realist affirmation of (3.c) space (ākāṣa) and (3.d) time (kāla). For Newtonian mechanics these were separate categories and were constants, but for Einsteinian physics these are one and the same. I won’t assert if Jain Dharma is more compatible with either Newtonian or Einsteinian physics herein, other than to say that Jain Dharma views space and time (or perhaps space-time) as “real” apart from our own mental constructions; hence making Jain Dharma a school of scientific realism. However, we should acknowledge that modern sciences are asking very different research questions, and therefore will have a very different answer as to what is “real” than Jain Dharma. 

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Jain Dharma Distinct from Modern Science
However, “[d]espite many similarities, Jain doctrine and science serve different objectives.” Because of that, Jain Dharma doesn’t confine itself to the material objects and methods of modern scientific inquiry alone that is motivated only by the “inquisitive pursuit of knowledge.” Rather, Jain Dharma is more interested in “the spiritual progress of the individual soul to reach the ultimate salvation” (AIJP 2019, 83-84). 

This goal of “soteriology” or “liberation from suffering” requires a broader method of inquiry, and a less limited field of inquiry than directed towards matter alone. This is by the purview of study for the natural sciences only deals with that which is material (rūpī-ajīva, pudgala, #2 above) as it operates in time and space based on motion, force, etc. (arūpī-ajīva, #3 above; dharma, adharma, ākāṣa, and kāla). 

Unlike Jain Dharma, modern science does not discuss the nature of selfhood or entertain the possibility of a soul that is untouched by the destructive forces of time (arūpī-jīva, #1 above). Rather modern science is agnostic about objects of phenomenological, first-person, subjective inquiry, or anything that is not perceivable with the external “empirical” senses. Further, while modern science does examine matter, it does not examine how mater (rūpī-ajīva, pudgala) operates in relationship to the soul—which is accounted for by the examination of material karma in Jain Dharma.  Thus, in some senses, such as empirical methods of research, Jainism can be considered to be “scientific.” 


However, if Jain teachings were merely scientific, then we wouldn’t need Jainism because we already have a very advanced from of m

odern science that has delivered many truths that frankly Jainism alone could not. But despite the advancements in natural sciences in the modern era, we do still need Jain teachings because they go far beyond the methodological purview and limitations of natural sciences since they inquire about the first-person, subjective (rather than merely objective) situation in our vast and complex universe, where truth ultimately far transcends scientific verification—and requires something much more subjective, much more experiential within the depths of our own conscious being—to experience, and to gain a deep understanding of reality as it is. That depth in understanding is what one gains when progressing on the “mukti-marga” and employing Jain research questions, methods, and research design.



Professor Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Arihanta Institute, received his doctorate in Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California where his research emphasized comparative dharmic traditions and the philosophy of religion. He teaches several foundational self-paced, online courses based in Jain philosophy, yoga, ecology, languages, and interfaith peacebuilding, including:



Professor Bohanec is also lead organizer of the 2nd Annual Engaged Jain Studies Conference: “Yoga in Jainism” taking place on Saturday, April 20, 2024. This free, one-day event aims to provide a platform for scholars and practitioners to discuss the historical, social, and intellectual dimensions of Jain yoga, fostering a dialogue that spans modern and pre-modern contexts within South Asia, the global Jain diaspora, and beyond.