Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A talk I gave entitled "Science and Vedanta", with a response from Professor Stefan Ploch

Science and Vedanta

I must say at the outset that I am neither a scientist nor a Vedantin. I wish merely to share something which I have always found fascinating; I, for example, am very much enamoured by the intellectual heritage which our great forefathers have left for our assimilation and edification.

So I hope it is something you all can relate to, and that it is not just something which is of interest to me…

In acknowledgement of my intellectual short-comings, I must beg your forgiveness for any possible sophistry and non sequiturs.

The glory of our Hindu culture never ceases to amaze me. Even Western scholars, in their quest for the Truth, come closer and closer to the Vedantic view of Truth, as will be discussed shortly.

It says somewhere in the Upanishads: “In the beginning there was the One. The One willed to become the many, and from the One the many was born.” Even that mantra we chant every Sunday at satsang:

Aum poornamadah poornamidam poornaat poornamudachyate
Poornasya poornamaadaaya poornamevaavashishyate

Translated into English, this mantra reads: “That is the Whole, this is the whole. Of the Whole the whole manifests. When the whole is negated what remains is still the Whole”.(In less euphuistic parlance, this means that from God this world manifests. When this world is no more, what will be left is God.)

Of course, this is a reference to the creation of the cosmos. If one looks at the nature of the cosmos from an empirical (and logical) point of view, i.e. taking only hard scientific facts into account, one will see the profound truth in these purports.

Sometime in the 1960’s (or thereabouts) a scientist named Edwin Hubble discovered a phenomenon called gravitational red-shift. Red-shift is something that occurs when the universe expands, which means that the galaxies in our cosmos are moving away from each other. (As opposed to blue-shift, which would entail a contraction of the universe). There are many other reasons for believing that the universe must be expanding, but I don’t have time to go into all the details today. For example, the Steady State Theory (which claims that the universe is static, of which Fred Hoyle is the chief exponent) contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (i.e. disorder) in a system will increase: a broken egg can only become more broken, to take a frivolous example.

In the 1970’s this idea was taken up by Stephen Hawking, who currently holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University - the very same chair held by Sir Isaac Newton when he was there. He reasoned that since the universe is expanding forward in time, it must have been contracting “backwards” in time, so to speak. With this as his working hypothesis, he proved, along with Roger Penrose (a brilliant Mathematician at Oxford University), that there must have been a time when all the galaxies in the entire cosmos were at a point (what they call a “singularity”) of near-infinite density. This vast amount of density, being so great, caused a gargantuan explosion (popularly called the Big Bang). And that is the point at which creation is said to have been initiated.

Now, Newton’s law of universal gravitation says that every object attracts, and is attracted by, every other object in the universe. The various galaxies have not reached escape velocity (that means they are not going to just “fly away” from each other) because gravity is restricting its movement. Eventually it will succumb to this gravitational pull, and the universe will start contracting, culminating in The Big Crunch: whereby all the galaxies in the cosmos just collapse into each other.

It is indeed very interesting how we have the three aspects of Brahmin at play here: we have Brahma the Creator initiating the Big Bang; Vishnu the Preserver sustaining the universe; and Shiva the Destroyer instigating the Big Crunch.

So what happened before the Big Bang? Some scientists say that that question is inapplicable because “before” is a temporal term, and that time only came into existence at the inception of the Big Bang. Others, like Roger Penrose, say that before the Big Bang there were vast fields of gravitational energy which somehow coalesced and burst forth into the cosmos. It even says in the Rig-Veda:

In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence.
All this world was unmanifest energy.
The One breathed, without breath, by His Own Power.
Nothing else was there…

(Which is somewhat similar to what Roger Penrose claims.)

So in the end, what is going to be left is what was there in the very beginning! Hence, all this waffling is tantamount to: “That is the Whole this is the whole. Of the Whole the whole manifests. When the whole is negated what remains is still the Whole.” Isn’t that just so marvelous…?

Scientists are still speculating about how long the period from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch will take. One estimate is 5 000 million years. But if the scientists bothered reading our scriptures, they would find their answer. According to our Wisdom, there are four Yugas (Ages): Krita-Yuga, Treta-Yuga, Dvapara-Yuga and Kali-Yuga, each occurring in descending order of virtue and spirituality. The Kali-Yuga began in 3101BC, the year Krishna left the earth. The duration of this Yuga is 432 000 years. Dvapara-Yuga was twice as long; Treta-Yuga, three times; and Krita-Yuga, four times. This cycle would take 4 320 000 years to conclude. When this happens, the cycle starts again. When this cycle takes place a thousand times, one day in the eyes of Brahma elapses. His night is just as long. Brahma lives for a hundred years with days and nights of this length. At the close of this hundred years the universe is absorbed into the Supreme Being.

So, using some simple mathematics, the exact number of years can be calculated. What a pity it is that the great scientists of the world don’t know this!

It is thus evident that empirical research is only confirming what was said aeons ago in the Vedantic school of thought.

Vedanta also proclaims that the world does not exist; there’s an underlying Force which manifests the facade of an external world. Although that’s a very daunting claim, the dictates of contemporary quantum mechanics seem to be heading in exactly that direction, believe it or not.

At the quantum level, very strange things happen, things which often contradict common sense. But as Stephen Hawking says, in response to the critiques of quantum mechanics’ counter-intuitive purports: “Common sense also tells us that the sun goes around the earth, and that the earth is flat. Science tells us otherwise. So why should we always believe our so-called common sense?” For example, electrons jump from point A to point B without traversing the space in between; a single photon is found to be in two places at the same time; a cat can be both dead and alive at the same time…etc. Even more radical, protons are composed of vibrating energy packets that have no solidity at all. It has neither mass nor size. Experiments, using technology like particle accelerators, seem to indicate that these sub-atomic energy packets are literally flashing in and out of existence, millions of times per second. And since they are the constituents of all matter in the universe, this universe must be one huge quantum mirage. Our senses are just too slow to pick it up. Just as an analogy, a snail can’t perceive stimuli faster than three seconds. So if a snail is looking at an apple, and you quickly snatch it and replace it before three seconds are up, the snail would perceive no change. So like that, our senses are too slow to perceive this quantum mirage. So when our beloved Gurudev says: “Brahmin is the only real entity/ Mr So and So is a false and non-entity”, heed it well because it is the truth.

And there are so many other things in the West which are based on Vedanta. Hypnosis, for example, is nothing but a rudimentary version of raja-yoga. Modern psychologists will tell you that there are four levels of consciousness: alpha (the waking state), beta (the state of relaxation), delta (light sleep) and theta (deep sleep). When you are in the beta-state, you become four times more receptive to stimuli. So in hypnosis they evoke the beta-state, and give you an instruction, which you subconsciously remember and carry out in your alpha-state. Likewise in meditation: by sitting down quietly you put yourself into the beta-state, and thereby make yourself receptive. Then you auto-suggest to yourself: “I am the immortal Atman”, or something along these lines. Then you remember it. Eventually you live it. Of course here the goal is more lofty and sublime: it is to realise you oneness with the Cosmic Consciousness.

Even the philosophy of karate is one and the same as Vedanta. Karate, by the way, came from India via a monk named Bodi Dharma. He travelled to China, at the request of the emperor, to train his soldiers. There he formulated a rudimentary form of karate (though it was not called karate), after which it spread to Japan. And there it was perfected. In his “Commentaries on the Martial Way”, Bruce Lee says something along the lines of: Somewhere between the dreaming state and waking consciousness, there is a void. It is in this void that eternal beatitude is to be found. Seek it, find it, attain it. That is what martial arts is: a means to this end…
Sounds to me like he is talking about moksha!

Plato’s theory of Forms is nothing but a poetic exposition of fundamental Hindu doctrines. Plato says that there is a realm which is perfect (the realm of the Forms). In this realm, for example, beauty exists in its pure, unadulterated form. So does virtue, peace…etc. The world we live in is an imperfect copy of the Forms. He also says that we all dwelt in the realm of the Forms, and that we were one with it and all its perfections. We used to ride in beautiful chariots all day long and enjoy the serenity…etc. Sometimes the chariots bump into each other, causing the passengers to fall off! And where do they land? On earth. But having fallen on earth, we imbibe its imperfections. So to return to our True Home, the Forms, we need to once again make ourselves perfect to be fit to dwell in the realm of perfection. Until we do so, we will continue reincarnating. And anything “new” which we learn on earth is nothing but a reminiscence of what we knew (but forgot) when we were one with the Forms.

The parallels are so obvious, they need no explanation. Many other Western scholars say things which sound eerily Vedantic. William Blake’s famous verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

T.S. Eliot said: If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is - infinite. He also said: We shall not cease from exploration/ And at the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know that place for the first time. Einstein said: All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, posed the following question: If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? And he convincingly argues that it doesn’t. Our perception is what makes it real. Lord Rama says a similar thing in The Yoga Vasistha. When asked why he was so despondent, he said - inter alia - that this world is nothing but a projection of this mind-stuff, yet we think it is real. The implication being that if our perception were to cease, the world would cease to exist. Perhaps empirical support for that claim is yet to be found, but I’m sure it will be scientifically proven someday in the near future…

In conclusion I would just like to say that it is blatantly obvious that the Occidental school of thought, in terms of intellectual edification, has contributed very little over and above that which was already expounded millennia ago both in our scriptures, and by our saints and sages.

Very proud of this talk, I sent the transcript to my then supervisor, and I got this rather facetious (and very funny!) pro-Popperian response:

What we know in form of objective knowledge still has to do with testability.Whether some religious piece of writing puts such knowledge into terms like Shiva, the Whole, the vastness, etc., makes no difference. In the end, on the basis of religion (and the Rakapaka, theone-which-is-the-one-that-it-is, was sustained in the heavens by the Tralalupa of the seven Litibongi of our Highest, created by Shenga, the rose-coloured three-eyed one, and which is in constant Rolokpolok, the great Upheaval, the art of Hastavasa the great Destroyer, the Shmasatkaratkaralala...), we can never know (in any non-subjective)sense whether we are being had or whether there is something to the Krunapakararinasharulena.

It even makes no difference how old thereligious, i.e., subjective knowledge in question is (or objective as information, which is not necessarily in relation to objective knowledgeabout truth). Whether we are told silly fairy tales or anything that is worth its salt (objectively speaking), cannot be decided on Krunapakrarinasharulena, which is why all religion is about pretence, appearing to be more knowledgeable than one actually is. The whole holy self-important (or even terribly humble) Tikahastuvashurela-nising of the religious is all part of this. When the author of the squib you sent me says: "In conclusion I would just like to say that it is blatantly obvious that the Occidental school of thought, in terms of intellectual edification, has contributed very little over and above that which was already expounded millennia ago both in our scriptures, and by our saints and sages." This is a silly thing to say. It is science because of which we are not sitting in our caves any longer (so what kind of knowledge is the author talking about? That you are YOU of the great Oneness, that spewsforth?), and even more to the point of intellectual edification, it isscience because of which we can know objectively whether certain bits inthe Veda have actually some truth to it.

On the basis of the Veda, we can know absolutely nothing ('know' in the objective sense).This is why all religious pieces of writing are totally useless as regards the establishment of objective knowledge. Of course, anything can give me ideas, from the Veda to being drunk, but if I want to knowwhether there is something to such ideas, or whether they are just the ideas of a possessed person or a drunk, has to be decided by an objective criterion on the basis of which a relation to objective truthcan be established. The only thing I know is Popper's testability(oversimplifying the matter somewhat).Finally, note: anyone can have cute ideas (well, one would think). People have ideas about all sorts of things all the time. From Dr Patterson who thinks that we are all naked apes inside, to the authors of the Veda (no, I do not mean Divinity), people who think that Italian is a deteriorated form of Latin, etc.: these are all ideas and, not looking at the question more closely, there could be something to all ofthem (if we formulate them precisely enough). That we can know (again, in the objective sense) whether we are dealing with foolishness has to do with testability, not with simply having ideas. Ideas are not enough. Tests are necessary, and often it takes years to find a test for a problem. Of course, if you're religious you can just 'know'(subjectively) anyway, damn the test, and feel safe and 'in the know' anyway; and it cannot be denied: 'in the know' you actually are in such a case. In the subjective know. It is the method of trial and error because of which we know whether what we know is more than an idea, an account, or a generalisation. So the Veda is full ideas. So what? With Popper, they can be turned into objective knowledge, with the Veda they remain ideas about which the best you can say is something that anyone can say to almost anything: "Maybe".

And for that all the big Shurimakaroni? About IDEAS? How ridiculous, and how incompetent. And howcomfortable. There is no risk in that. Ideas cannot be wrong withouttests. No boldness (because one cannot be wrong), thus nothing special. Religion is lowest denominator. It is what the weak cannot do without. Only bold people can do without it, without the safety, and without thecomfort. And - bold people can be wrong. And not only that: they actually have to be wrong all time in order to create objective knowledge. In spite of religious and Hollywood propaganda: it is not bold to have ideas.

It is bold to show that one's own ideas are wrong,wrong and wrong again.Parakalasamasanavagarnaparna!You are YOU.In the name of the One-that-talks-sahatmakas.I (who is Me Myself, who is not YOU, but ME, nay, it is not HIM, it is ONLY ME, for I am ME).

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