Vedanta and the 21st Century: Reality in Vedanta and Science
“There are striking similarities between the fundamental questions about the nature of reality asked by modern scientists and Vedantic thinkers. First of several articles on Vedanta and the modern world.” Navaratna Srinivas Rajaram (NS Rajaram) writes more.
Veda, which means knowledge in Sanskrit is said to be apaurusheya. It means that only primary knowledge has the right to be called Veda. Vedanta refers to the body of secondary (or derived) knowledge created by human thinkers drawing on the Vedas. I will be using this as the working definition though some scholars may disagree with it. This means Vedanta, like science is a human creation. As a result, both have had to confront the question of how real they are, and how they relate to the real world. It is the central problem of both Vedanta and of physics today.
Until about a century ago scientists didn’t worry too much about the nature of the reality of the physical world they were trying to describe and understand. They implicitly assumed that the things they were observing and measuring were real. When doubts arose about the reality of some ideas used in their theories, like light waves in the eighteenth century, they assumed that the question would be settled by some clever experiment. This did happen in 1801 when Thomas Young in a famous experiment demonstrated the wave nature of light.
But the situation began to change when scientists started introducing into their theories things like atoms that could not directly be observed. Even in the twentieth century there were scientists who refused to believe that atoms were real. What convinced scientists was not any experiment but Einstein’s explanation of the irregular movement of particles suspended in a liquid known as Brownian motion. Jean Perrin’s 1909 experiment verified one of Einstein’s predictions based on the atomic theory of Brownian motion without actually observing atoms. This may be seen as the beginning of atomic physics that soon became entangled with quantum theory and all that came with it.
No one today doubts the reality of the quantum any more than the reality of the atom, but Max Planck in 1900 had introduced it as a purely mathematical device in a desperate attempt to resolve some anomalies observed in heat radiation; he never believed it had a physical existence. Five years later, Einstein extended the quantum idea to light to explain the photoelectric effect which the wave theory could not. As he saw it, light flowed not in a continuous stream like water but in discrete lumps like ice cubes out of a vending machine.
Unlike Planck, Einstein had no doubt that his light quanta, now called photons were real. He also realized that he had brought about a great change in physics. Writing to a friend in 1905, the ‘miracle year’ in which he created the special theory of relativity, explained Brownian motion and introduced the light quantum, he described only the last as being ‘truly revolutionary’. At a conference in Salzburg in 1909 Einstein proclaimed: “The next phase of the development of theoretical physics will bring us a theory of light that can be interpreted as a kind of fusion of the wave and particle theories.”
Neither Einstein nor anyone else in 1909 could know where this wave-particle duality of light would take physics. At first, things seemed natural enough with the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom explaining light emission and spectral lines, though Niels Bohr, soon to be recognized as the second seminal figure of twentieth century physics (after Einstein) professed that he didn’t care for Einstein’s light quantum idea.
In his relativity theory Einstein had already shown that matter and energy are one and the same; now he was saying that light, which is a form of energy, is both waves and particles. Louis de Broglie connected the two and proposed that matter also had waves. This too received experimental support. Next, if matter can be a wave, there must be a wave equation describing it. This was supplied by Erwin Schrödinger, though no one at first seemed to understand what it was wave of. Then Max Born offered the explanation that it was not really a wave like a water wave or a sound wave, but an abstract mathematical function that allowed one to calculate the probability of where a particle like electron would be found. (Born’s granddaughter, the singing actress Olivia Newton-John is probably better known, except to physicists.)
Werner Heisenberg threw a bombshell into this conundrum with what he called the uncertainty principle. He claimed that it is impossible to know both the position and the momentum (or speed) of a particle exactly. Just as Einstein’s relativity theory placed a limit on velocity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle placed a limit on knowledge. All one can calculate is the probability of a particle like the electron going from one place to another, say from the earth to the moon, and not the path by which it gets there. Worse, the electron doesn’t even exist until we observe it on the moon. So it is the observer that defines its existence.
So here was the new reality: a wave equation without a wave that is needed to find a particle that becomes real only when we observe it. As Heisenberg saw it, “Reality has evaporated into mathematics.” His colleague Pascual Jordan, who might have won a Nobel Prize but for his unsavory politics (he became a Nazi storm trooper) said, “There is no reality; we ourselves create things with our experiments.” Bohr, the high priest of this new physics proclaimed: “Physics is not about reality but about our knowledge of reality.”
Einstein was unhappy with the turn of events in the revolution that he had done so much to launch. To him the physical world was reality, not something that evaporated into its mathematical dual created by physicists. “Do you really believe that the moon exists only when I am looking at it?” He asked. This is called ‘Einstein’s Moon’.
To make sense of this mass of contradictions, some of the pioneers like Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer and David Bohm turned to eastern philosophy. There they found that problems lying at the center of new physics like reality, and existence had received the attention of Vedanta philosophers. The medieval philosopher Madhva (1238 – 1317) had explicitly noted: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent (or unmanifest and manifest).”
And in what amounts to an anticipation of physicist Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Madhva had asserted: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One.” This was echoed by physicist Schrödinger (a student of Vedanta) more than 500 year later when he said: “…the plurality that we perceive is only an appearance; it is not real. Vedantic philosophy, has sought to clarify it by a number of analogies, … [of] the many-faceted crystal which, while showing hundreds of little pictures of what is in reality a single existent object, does not really multiply the object.”
His predecessor Shankara (788 – 821) expressed it differently: “Scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical facts) and jnana (gnosis or thought) through reflection or deduction.” This applies equally to science. And most significantly for our purposes, he claimed: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”
This problem arises because the universe had been in existence long before us humans came on the planet and began our efforts to understand it. This gave rise to creations like mathematics to measure and count and physics to understand the forces of nature. Eventually it got to the point that with our theories we created a description of the universe— including its origin (the famous Big Bang) with its own laws that we called physical laws. This gave us two worlds—the one created by nature and the other describe by our theories.
It all seemed fine until things began to go wrong about a hundred years ago when contradictions began to appear in our theories, and we have still not recovered. If anything the situation has gotten worse with theoretical and experimental inconsistencies. Where does this leave us? Reality and our conception of it, can the twain never meet?
I see the question of Reality as the meeting ground between Vedanata and modern physics, especially quantum mechanics. But this is at the metaphysical level without insupportable claims that our ancestors already knew about discoveries made by modern science. Reality is the Holy Grail of quantum physics; it is an area in which Vedanta can make a significant contribution and thereby come to occupy a central position in modern metaphysics. But for this to happen Vedanta or some parts of it must be expressed in an idiom that can work with modern science. This is the program that my colleagues and I are pursuing.
When we come down to the metaphysical level, what we find is that similar and sometimes the same questions that were asked by modern scientists had occupied the minds Vedantic thinkers. (By metaphysics I mean questions about the knowledge of the physical universe, with no reference to the doings of God.) This question was asked, and partly answered by Vedantic thinkers like Shankara and Madhva centuries ago, and is being asked again beginning with Albert Einstein nearly a hundred years ago and now by many others, notably John Stuart Bell of Bell’s theorem fame.
A point I would like to make is: raising questions about Reality in the Vedantic context should not be seen as advocating other-worldliness. That is why I am sticking to metaphysics or knowledge relating to the world around us. As I observed earlier, the Reality question lies at the heart of quantum physics and we should welcome any efforts to bring Vedanta into the picture. It is a tribute to our ancestors that they had grappled with the same question centuries ago. The real question is the relationship between their approach and of modern physics. Here are a few examples from some of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 20th century.
The concept of objective Reality… evaporated into mathematics that no longer represents the behavior of elementary particles but rather our knowledge of it. (Werner Heisenberg)
Through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again; it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.…it is this entering of an impression into our consciousness which alters the wave function. (Eugene Wigner)
… there is no [reality]. We ourselves produce the results of the measurement. (Pascual Jordan)
Quantum mechanics says that nature is unintelligible except as a calculus, that all you can do is to compute with the equations and operate your apparatus and compare the results. (David Bohm)
Do you really believe that the moon only exists when I am looking at it? (Albert Einstein)
It is interesting to compare these with what Indian Vedantic thinkers had to say. Madhva (1238 – 1317), in his great work on metaphysics called Tattva-Viveka wrote: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent.” The goal of Madhva’s metaphysics was “not merely to realize the distinction between appearance and Reality, but to understand and appreciate the still more fundamental difference between Independent Reality and dependent realities.” And to understand the relationship between them. This according to Einstein should be the goal of quantum physics also.
This sense of duality lies at the heart of Madhva’s philosophy as it does in quantum mechanics also for which reason it is known as the dvaita (dual) school. Madhva then goes deeper into the subject; invoking ancient Vedantic texts known as the Upanishads he comments: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, taught so prominently in the Upanishads, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One; or by virtue of some similarity (of natures) between them; or on account of the One being the cause of the many…”
Nor is this an isolated case, but the culmination of a centuries-long quest for the nature of Reality. As we already saw, Madhva’s predecessor Shankara took the radical view that scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical) and jnana (gnosis or thought) i.e., through reflection or deduction. Shankara’s eminent modern commentator S. Radhakrishnan explains the situation as follows:
“The relation between the world of multiplicity and the Absolute is an inconceivable one and this inconceivability is denoted by the word Maya.” Thus Maya is not illusion as often mistranslated, but inconceivable. He further comments: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”
As Madhva sees it, the independent (or unmanifest) and the dependent (or manifest) realities are real— not mithya. His argument is: if the unmanifest is real, how can it give rise to the unreal in its manifestations? Any illusions are human creations, not nature’s.
From this we may see that some of the great problems of modern physics like Duality, Reality, Consciousness and observables had engaged the great philosophical minds of Classical India. I feel that this metaphysical convergence of science and Vedanta can create a new school of philosophy of science. The first step would be to start an Indian journal of philosophy of science that invites articles on science as well as Vedanta and the relationship between the two. It is a shame that no such journal exists at this time. It is a further shame that the first modern thinker to see the connection between Vedanta and modern physics happened to be the Austrian Schrödinger and not any Indian thinker. (Jagadish Chandra Bose was an exception, but he was not a quantum physicist but one of the founders of biophysics.)
Navaratna Rajaram is a scientist and historian. He is currently working on the book Yogis in the Quantum World: Science, Vedanta and the search for the meaning of reality.