(Interactive session on 06.07.2016)
Keynote address by Prasanta Ray
(Other participant speakers: Mr. Birendra Lal Bhattacharya, Mr. Pranab K.Ghosh, Prof. Krishna Pada Sarkar, Mr. Asim Kr. Raha & Prof. D. K. Banwet)
Introduction & concluding remarks by Asish K Raha
Vedanta (the end of the Vedas), comprising ancient Indian spiritual treatises known as the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, dwells primarily on Brahman or Pure Consciousness as the ultimate source of all existence that is phenomenal. Physics, on the contrary, is a science of the matter, having very little to do with consciousness. It seeks to explore and explain how the material universe has come into being by the laws of the nature (or laws of gravitation). Thus the subject and the object of Vedanta and physics are ex-facie antithetical and incompatible. Is it possible then to find the echoes of Vedanta in physics?
Secondly, while both Vedanta and physics seek to know the ultimate truth, variously called Brahman by Vedantists and ‘the theory of everything’ by physicists, their approaches are entirely different. The former deduces its finds from certain axioms or postulates while the latter proceeds on the basis of certain rational hypotheses, subjecting each inference to strict validation checks. Is it possible for physics with its usual, rigorous validation checks to corroborate some of the Vedantic postulates? Only if the answer is yes, the title of today’s deliberation will stand the test of our scrutiny.
Lastly, one of the postulates of Vedanta is that there is no demarcation between spirit and the matter, as materialization of spirit and spiritualization of matter continue ad infinitum by the will of Pure Consciousness or Brahman. Physics accepts the proposition that the energy converts into matter and vice versa, thus substituting the word spirit for energy. The moot question, therefore, is whether the energy is conscious or sans consciousness. In the event of the former, one may feel the echoes of Vedanta in modern physics. Otherwise not.
Before we address the above issues in our concluding remarks, let us broadly analyze the essence of Vedanta and modern physics, also known as quantum physics.
Probable origins of the Upanishads and science
The Rishis (sages) of the Upanishads may have been impelled to undertake introspective search for deep truths (facts) by the thirst for knowledge and the need to banish worldly misery. The scientist too may have been similarly motivated. The latter sought knowledge and remedy in the spiritual world, the former sought the same in the phenomenal one.
Philosophy and methodology of the Rishis (Upanishads)
- The apparatus of the senses plus mentation and cerebration via the mind and brain ― paroksha, mediate ― is not the only means of fact-finding re the ‘objective’.
- Since every experience ― including facts of the ‘without’ ― eventually culminates in perception and understanding ‘within’, the ‘within’ may as well be addressed directly ― via meditation ― aparoksha, immediate.
- Knowledge, so-called, derived from sense-mind-intellect perception is relative ― understood with reference to other things ― and not absolute.
- Inference is unreliable as a fact-finding means. Direct experience is better.
- There can be no such thing as ‘understanding’; only ‘familiarity’ is possible.
- Mathematics may say ‘how’ but not ‘what’.
- Gather experience ― anubhuti. To that end, do sadhana ― diligent self-effort. ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’; there is no other way.
Vedanta ― Salient findings
[Since the very means of Vedanta involves realization or direct (aparoksha) apprehension and not (the common or scientific) perception and inference ― a lockdown, so to say, of the sense-mind-intellect complex ― it is difficult, nay, impossible, to convey such realizations via language, for language evolves from sense-mind-intellect ‘perception’ and ‘understanding’. That is why ― and also, perhaps, because of occasional sub-maximal realizations ― there are (at least, apparent,) variations and inconsistencies among different Upanishadic passages. That is why, truly, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ ― swanubhuti or self-discovery is essential. That is why, again, Upanishadic passages have for millennia been the subject of interpretation by intellectuals and sages ― giving birth to various ― six popular ― darshanas. Indeed, Vedanta itself has three schools of advaita, vishishtadvaita and dvaita. Here, we shall adopt advaita.
Yet, it is good ― probably a must to begin with ― to do shravana and manana on Vedanta darshana and Upanishadic passages, to gather meaning ― even if a bit error-fraught ― as possible and needed for an intellectual foundation ― intellectual ‘faith’ ― from which to embark upon nididhyasana, or contemplation-meditation ― again a must.]
- Perception via sense-mind-intellect ― paroksha, mediate ― distorts, cheats. So, ‘absorption’, ‘realization’ sans sense-mind-intellect ― aparoksha anubhuti ― im-mediate apprehension, is superior and necessary.
- Ultimate reality, Brahman, is ekam eva advitiyam (One with no second) ― from before space-time ― indescribable (anirvachaniya), undifferentiated, infinite, unchanging, birth-death-less, insubstantial, abangmanasogocharam ― beyond access of speech and mind ― not amenable to existential investigation.
- Brahman is ‘all-absolute’ ― sat (absolute existence), chit (absolute consciousness) and ananda (absolute joy). Adjectives do not, cannot, apply.
- Sarvam khalu idam Brahma ― all this is verily Brahman (as ‘appearing’ to sense-mind-intellect). (‘Tis but One ― Vivekananda).
- Brahman’s ‘appearance’ (via sense-mind-intellect), or manifestation ― fundamentally and comprehensively different from Brahman per se ― is phenomena, the world. Such appearance happens per the power of maya, an aspect ― so to say ― of Brahman. Maya ‘projects’ Brahman, or makes it ‘appear’, in ways that are delusive, pseudo. Advaita holds: phenomena is false, like the false perception or superimposition ― adhyas ― of a snake in a rope. Such snake is neither real nor unreal ― neither existence nor non-existence; the snake is unreal but the rope is real. Maya is agyan, ignorance, lack of knowledge, ‘unreal-real’. (If light exists and darkness is lack of light, can one say ‘darkness exists’? Nasadiya Sukta, Rk Veda, the ‘hymn of creation’: na asat asit na u sat asit tadanim ― then there was neither existence nor non-existence.)
- The utterly non-existent, asat ― like a barren woman’s child (advaita illustration) ― cannot become existent, nor vice versa ― a kind of inevitable ‘conservation’; infinitude cannot increase or decrease. Brahman being infinitude, its appearance per maya cannot be and is not equal to or more than Brahman ― it is ever less.
- Creation is thus not any kind of growth ― it is ‘more’ or ‘less’ ‘manifestation’.
- To ‘acquire’ gyan, knowledge, is to progressively lessen the ‘less’ till the One-and-only is realized.
- Creation is really like involution ― ‘less’ ― followed by evolution ― ‘more’ ― of Brahman. Involution is like (so-called) srishti, evolution is like (so-called) laya. The srishti-sthiti-pralaya cycle ― kalpa ― repeats ad infinitum. Evolution reaching consummation is total dissolution ― pralaya ― of (apparent) creation. (There can be localized pralaya ― Vivekananda).
- In ‘involution’, Brahman becomes (‘appears to become’) finite, temporary, change-prone, many, less conscious. In evolution, the reverse happens. Evolution encompasses sentient beings up to man (and beyond to superman, mukta-jiva, through sadhana) ― with Brahman becoming (‘appearing to become’) enduring, less change prone, more conscious. So, things are subtler, more energetic, more interconnected, more one, more ‘aware’, more conscious, in deeper layers of nature, which is towards the beginning of creation, nearer Brahman per se. (Can moksha or mukti be compared with micro pralaya?)
- Thus, somehow(?), from Brahman issued(?) first of all, agyan, maya, (veil of) ignorance, then space and time, and pran (energy?) and (insubstantial) akash (field’?), whence chronologically evolved ― rather, ‘appeared’, ― the subtlest, less subtle, gross, grossest… with jivas (sentient creatures) coming towards the end closer to recent times. At some time in this process sprang tanmatras ― rudimentary (virtual?) particles incapable of participating in processes.
- Since everything is only an appearance of the absolute infinitude ― Brahman ― therefore, everything is essentially Brahman-like, infinite, one ― there is really no plurality (advaita). (That is why a discerning man wants to go on living (sat), to know (chit), and to experience pure joy (ananad)). Nothing is ‘local’, everything is ‘global’. But, maya-bound, man ― the observer ― sees (specious) many by erroneously considering ‘forms’ (rupa) of Brahman to be distinct, stand-alone, things, entities, events, creatures; he then concretizes the (so-called) many by affixing nametags to such ‘things’ etc. in a process called namarupa ― ‘name-cum-form’. (Bohu rupe sammukhe tomar ― before you in myriad forms ― Vivekananda). (Un)real adhyas plus namarupa is maya at her hoodwinking best!
- All being essentially Brahman ― everything (of maya, phenomena) is made up of asti + bhati + priya + nama + rupa. Asti (existence), bhati (appearance to sense-mind-intellect) and priya (joyousness) are reflections of the intrinsic sat, chit and ananda, which is Brahman, and the observer gullibly adds namrupa to these to manufacture the spurious many.
- Thus ― in a most meaningful way ― it is the subject-observer who, at least partially, creates the so-called ‘objective’ world.
- Maya is ‘aghatana-ghatana-patiyasi’ ― skilful in making the (apparently) impossible possible.
- Space-time-causality ― desh-kala-nimitta ― is maya, illusory and delusive.
Philosophy and methodology of physics
- There is the subject or ‘observer’, and the observer-independent ‘object’.
- Space and time are sovereign, absolute, objective, and independent of and distinct from each other ― and the constant ‘setting’ or arena of phenomena.
- There is (objective) causality in phenomena, and the purpose of science is to discover causal links and use them to predict or control (events). A particular set of facts invariably leads causally to another particular ― unfailingly causally-predictable ― set.
- Inference is an infallible methodology.
- It is possible to ‘understand’ ― and ‘explain’ ― things and events and their causal interconnectedness.
- Perception via the usual apparatus of the senses plus mentation and cerebration via the mind and brain is the only ― and an infallible ― means of fact-finding re the ‘objective’.
- Only that which is perceived or inferred from perception is fact, truth. Such perception and inference constitute the bedrock of scientific understanding.
- Therefore, sharpening the powers of perception ― via instrumentation ― and sharpening logic, lead to more and better fact-finding and understanding. (So, optical- and radio-telescopes, optical- and electron-microscopes, particle accelerators/colliders, Hubble space telescopes, have been invented to peer deeper and finer into nature in incisive experiments).
- Mathematics ― a highly refined and codified system of logic ― is an infallible and unique means of ‘understanding’ and predicting. Two classes of events following the same mathematics may be considered identical or similar.
- Diligent experimentation and intellection is necessary. (That is how, Tycho Brahe (mapping the heavens) plus Kepler (discerning ‘laws of planetary motion’ in the maps) plus Newton (discovering universal gravitation from those laws) ― spanning 100 years in all! ― did long and incredible collective sadhana in physics/astronomy).
Physics ― Salient findings
- Experiment (experience) showed that observers moving at different speeds relative to light, all measure light’s speed at the same c ― thus, in a manner of speaking, light has no relative speed.
- The above characteristic of light forms the basis of Special Relativity (SR) ―
- Space and time are not different ― it is one 4-dimentional ‘space-time’.
- Simultaneity of events depends on observer’s speed. Space shrinks, time slows and mass increases as observer’s speed increases. Thus, observer plays a role in observation of the (so-called) ‘objective’.
- In nature, light’s speed c is the maximum speed of any particle or wave. Even two speeds added cannot exceed c ― there can never be ‘superluminal’ speed. (For example, the net speed of a man running at 0.75c speed on a ship moving at 0.75c will be 0.96c and not 1.5c!)
- E = mc2 ― energy and mass (weight) are inter-convertible ― germ of ‘atom bomb’. While conservation laws such as conservation of mass and of energy were known, now, it becomes conservation of mass + energy.
- The subject-observer plays a role in observation of the objective?
- Space and time ― so different-seeming ― are together, one?
- Mass and energy ― so different-looking ― are inter-convertible, one?
- Inevitable conservation in infinitude of different entities taken together?
- After SR, General Relativity (GR) was theoretically formulated ―
- An observer under gravitation is the same as an accelerating observer.
- A ‘gravitating’ (weighty) body ‘warps’ the space-time around it ― much as a heavy ball warps the membrane on which it sits. Just as the depression of the membrane seems to attract balls rolling into it, and seems to make them orbit it, similarly, the space-time warp seems to create gravitational force that seems to attract, and seems to keep bodies in orbit; there is in reality no such thing as gravitational force of attraction.
- Movements of and changes in massive bodies generate ripples in space-time. ‘Gravitation waves’ have been recently detected.
- A massive body grows in mass by attracting more and more matter to it to eventually have super-high concentration of mass, which, in time, will punch a hole in space-time. The ‘black hole’ has been observed.
- Undulating space? Space and time are somewhat like ‘objects’ in some unknown setting ― and not really the sovereign ‘setting’ itself? Desh-kala(-nimitta) ― space-time(-causality) ― is maya, illusory?
- (Gravitational) force (and particles too) are only a geometrical bending of space-time? From the insubstantial is born the substantial?
- Holes in space-time ― are the (observed) ‘black holes’?! Local pralaya?
- Light behaves like waves by producing wave-like patterns when split and recombined, and also behaves like particles in photo-electric effect of light striking matter to emit electrons; so, light is both particle-like and wave-like ― ‘wave-particle duality’. Strangely, it ‘travels as waves and arrives as particles’.
- The above wave-particle duality forms the basis of Quantum Mechanics (QM) ―
- Here, the mathematics of 2 + 3 = 5 does not apply. The newly-minted and somewhat wavelike mathematics of QM applies.
- A particle of light ― ‘quantum’ ― is like a ‘wave-packet’, so to say. Actually, it is impossible to describe a ‘quantum’ ― it is totally ‘indescribable’.
- Physics is of ‘observables’ and not of un-observables.
- All measurement ― observation ― involves an unavoidable, irreducible minimum ‘uncertainty’ or ‘indeterminacy’; this has nothing to do with (defects in) the instruments of observation, it is a feature of nature itself. (Uncertainty in observed nature?)
- In an experiment ― observation ― many outcomes are possible pre-observation, but one ― unpredictable ― outcome actualises upon observation. The individual outcome is unpredictable but the ‘probability’ or ‘chance’ of its occurrence is predictable. (Who chooses?)
- Yet, collectively, observation by observation ― quantum by quantum ― the wavelike pattern builds up. (Like schoolgirls on a field ― being collectively aware ― running in randomly but forming a pre-planned pattern collectively?)
- When quanta are allowed to go through either of two paths, they subsequently organize themselves in a certain way; when one path is blocked, the quanta reorganize in a totally different way, as if the blocked path does not exist. (An awareness of ‘road closed’ in the system?)
- When the observer does not register which of two paths a certain quantum has taken, the wavelike pattern is produced; but when he does register the ‘which path’, a particle-like pattern results. If the registration of ‘which path’ is erased immediately after registration, the wavelike pattern returns. (‘Hide-and-seek’ between the quanta and the observer?)
- When a (composite) particle with a fixed value of an attribute ― characteristic and definitive of such particles ― is split and separated (even by a hundred kilometres, conceivably millions), the values of such attribute on each component, measured independently of each other, yet always add up to such characteristic value of the composite ― even though the measured values of the components actualise only upon observation and not before. (A ‘superluminal’ communication not being possible, is there, then, ‘instant’ communication’ which is like another way of saying ‘oneness’?) This is known as ‘quantum entanglement’. (An abiding oneness or clairvoyant awareness?)
- A similar thing happens when two particles interact and separate after such interaction; they thereafter become ‘quantum-entangled’ with each other (Like two becoming one?).
- Mathematics is just a tool of logic and not any uncanny insight? 1 + 2 = 3 is followed by cats and humans, but cat ≠ human!
- “Indescribable’ ― anirvachniya?
- Is ‘understanding’ then ‘familiarity’ only? Nothing can really be ‘explained’?
- Physics is built on ‘observation’ of ‘observables’? On bhati and not asti?
- ‘Objective’ scientific ‘observation’ involves ‘indeterminacy’ ― it cheats?
- Bhati is distinct from asti ― and perhaps not like asti at all? Only deceptive appearances? Only ‘phenomenon’, ‘noumenon’ never known?
- ‘Chancy outcomes? No such thing as (objective) causality?
- Who chooses ― the observer? Unsuspected subject-object duet? The subject-observer, at least partially, creates the so-called ‘objective’ world?
- Space-time-causality ― desh-kala-nimitta ― is maya, delusive?
- ‘Particle-like’ and ‘wavelike’ behaviour of quanta depending on the kind of observation being carried out by the observer? A quantum versus observer ‘Spy v spy’? Maya is aghatana-ghatana-patiyasi?
- Quirky ‘interconnectedness’, ‘oneness’, and mystifying ‘collective awareness’ in deep nature? ‘Global’ system-wide awareness?
- ‘Quantum entangled’? Together? One? ‘Local’-‘global’?
- Big Bang began in one particle. Is the whole universe then ‘entangled’ as one? Nothing is local? ‘Tis but One? ‘Before you in myriad forms’?
- SR and QM were (mathematically) united into Quantum Field Theory (QFT) ―
- Space is not empty. It is filled with extensive gravitational fields, which go hand-in-hand with massive bodies. Space is also filled with ‘quantum fields’ in which are born (physics: ‘creation’) and die (physics: ‘annihilation’) particles. Energy input causes excitation of fields which excitations are particles.
- ‘Quantum fluctuation’ born of unavoidable ‘indeterminacy’ shows up as phantom-like particles ― called ‘virtual’ particles. These are not quite particles for they cannot be detected as such.
- The field is ‘global’ even when the body is ‘local’? Can the body then be considered separate and distinct from its field? Is anything local?
- The ‘insubstantial’ field (akash) to the substantial? Energy (pran) input?
- ‘Virtual particles’ ― like tanmatras?
Issues to ponder
Vedanta-science comparison and contrast cannot be pushed beyond a point, and it has to be more in terms of discerning parallels rather than identities. This is because the two follow radically different methodologies ― because findings, even when similar, are never identical, as they cannot be, because experience sans sense-mind-intellect is most probably most unlike that via sense-mind-intellect. One really cannot say physics finding = Vedanta finding.
However, that these two produce parallels is a matter of great philosophical significance worth reflecting upon. If either was the only true procedure and the other false, then their findings should have been utterly and comprehensively different, but they are not; broad qualitative and philosophical correspondence is noticeable. Even physicists are beginning to bend their attention to Vedanta.
Shankaracharya has spoken of paramarthika (supreme, transcendental) gyan, vyavaharika (existential) gyan and pratibhasika (fake) gyan, and recommended vyavaharika gyan, not Vedanta, for workaday use. Neither Vedanta nor science needs to replace the other ― at least, as of now.
‘Science and religion will meet and shake hands. Poetry and philosophy will become friends.’ ― Vivekananda
Our first poser relates to the cause of this phenomenal world. Is it Pure Consciousness, as Vedanta would put it or deterministic, insentient nature, as classical physicists generally believe? However, quantum physics has shaken the very root of classical physics. The genesis of the problem for physicists began in 1925 with the startling discovery of divergent functions of electrons by Erwin Schrodinger; one, like a particle when under observation, and at another time, like a wave when not under observation. Even though classical physicists like Einstein had stuck to objective reality and rejected the role of consciousness in the materialization of particles or collapse to their wave-like behavior, modern quantum physicists like Nobel-laureate Eugene Wigner by their pioneering researches have by now established that particles indeed have dual behavior, one, wave-like, and the other as the particle, and the cause of the collapse of wave-like behavior or materialization into particle form is a conscious observer. Granted that a conscious observer ought to be a materialized entity, there ought to be a second observer to materialize the first one, and a third observer to materialize the second one. In the process, we may come to the concept of the cosmic observer / consciousness that brought into existence entire creation. In the words of Wigner, who happened to be one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics: “It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness”. He in fact became interested in Vedantic philosophy, according to which, consciousness pervades the whole universe (refer: verse 1 of Isa Upanishad: Om Isavasyam idam sarvam) and the whole phenomenal creation that can be divided eightfold, viz. the earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and egoism is pervaded by the supreme soul or Pure Consciousness (refer verses 7.4-5, Bhagavad Gita). In that sense, consciousness is more fundamental than atoms and sub-atomic particles. This is where Vedanta and quantum physics appear to converge.
Some quantum physicists like Hugh Everett, however, posit that wave functions never collapse but split apart. In other words, the universes are constantly splitting apart into multiverses. Stretched logically, it would suggest that a person who has died in one universe might be alive in another. Above proposition of modern physicists also appears to agree with Upanishadic anecdotes of dead persons being alive on another plane.
Admittedly, the process and procedure of research by vedantists and physicists widely differ. While Vedantic logic is basically deductive, following a postulate or axiom pronounced by a realized soul, mostly sages, without explaining how that realization can be validated, physics, whether classical or quantum, is built on inductive logic, basing its finds on hypotheses. By way of illustration, let us take a few verses from the Gita, having scientific implication.
Verse 8.17: “Only those who know that Brahma’s (not Brahman) one day is equal to one thousand mahayugas or great time cycles (1 mahayuga = 12000 earth years) and one night equal to another one thousand mahayugas, are the knowers of the concept of day and night.”
The above verse from the Gita is axiomatic and smacks of relativity of earth time vis-à-vis space time without explaining how the said axiom was established. Einstein’s theory of relativity, on the other hand, was built on extensive and intensive researches with validation checks.
Verse: 3.27: “Actions are performed by the gunas (qualities) of prakriti (Nature). A man deluded by egoism thinks ‘I am the doer’.”
Neuro scientists will surely corroborate above postulate of Vedanta.
Verse 15.8: “When the soul departs from the body, or enters one, it takes along all the attributes of the gunas (qualities).”
The above verse from the Gita is strikingly similar in its content to the finds of Sir John Eccles, a Nobel laureate neuro-scientist, according to whom, consciousness leaves a dying person, floats around observing things and later attach itself to an unborn fetus to start a new existence (refer: How the Self Controls its Brain). Neuro-scientific researches have further revealed that the dis-embodied consciousness possesses visual, auditory, and olfactory senses and experiences a new perception of reality outside of one’s self, I-ness, or oneness. Above finds of neuro-scientists are still in the nature of hypotheses and not postulates, like in Vedanta. Nevertheless, the similarity or coherence in the finds of two opposite schools of thought cannot be lost sight of.
Let us now address the last poser: whether the energy is conscious or insentient, in order to settle whether the title of the current topic passes our scrutiny.
While classical physicists were generally reluctant to attribute consciousness to the Nature, Quantum physicists have different explanation for this phenomenon. To Stephen Hawkins consciousness is nothing more than an accidental byproduct of laws of physics (refer: The Grand Design). But to David Bohm, another well-known quantum physicist (refer: The Undivided Universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory), consciousness is present to some degree in all material forms. In his words: “everything material is also mental and everything mental is also material, but there are many more infinitely subtle levels of matter than we are aware of”. “”It could equally well be called idealism, spirit, consciousness. The separation of the two – matter and spirit – is an abstraction. The ground is always one.” Above views of David Bohm are in conformity with those of Eugene Wigner.
Viewed from the angle of pure physics also, it is inconceivable that any phenomenon such as consciousness can originate from a cause / source other than the Nature or Energy. Consciousness, therefore, can be taken as immanent or subsumed in the Nature / Energy. As a logical corollary to the above, one can reasonably infer that the Nature / Energy is sentient or conscious. Surely an insentient nature cannot produce consciousness, even accidentally. Once we accept the above proposition, Vedantic postulates will resonate with modern physicists.