Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Yoga and The Physical Sciences: Chapter 2 — excerpts

There the sun does not shine, nor the moon and the stars; nor do these flashes of lightning shine. How can this fire? He shining, all these shine; through His luster all these are illumined.

– Katha Upanishad, II.ii.15

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this conception of the universe began to come under serious challenge. The first challenge rose regarding the concept of the atom. The atom was earlier conceived as a tiny indestructible unit which was God-given and out of which He created all the known universe, and made it to follow His laws. But the atom under scientific investigation began to reveal its secrets.

The work of scientists such as Dalton began to show that atoms were particles with mass and properties which combined with each other to form molecules. The work of Mendelev showed all properties of matter to be the properties of their atoms. Faraday (1791) was already beginning to show that atoms were not all matter and they had electrical charge. As more knowledge of the atom was gathered, it came to be seen as a functional entity that followed known laws. This made it difficult to see God’s hand in its creation or function.

Finally in 1897, the electron was discovered by Thomson and its mass calculated. Thus atoms were shown not to be indestructible after all but also themselves composed of smaller units, the subatomic particles. The concept of a single indivisible unit of the universe, the atom, had collapsed, and instead there were a multitude of fundamental building blocks. The structure of the universe, it turned out, was diverse and not simple and harmonious, and it increased in complexity as our scientific knowledge grew. Also, at its most basic, there was certainly nothing from outside which guided the universe, it followed its own laws. Even as the knowledge of the microscopic world was changing the old concepts, newer challenges came from the study of the macrosm.

At the end of the eighteenth century, there was still no appreciation of the size of the universe. But from about 200 years ago, astronomers were slowly beginning to understand its vastness. Till then, man’s vision was confined to the solar system, with no knowledge of the distance of the stars. The first star was measured in 1838 by Bessel. It is difficult now to realise the impact that distance, about 10 light years, must have had on the imagination of people of that period, who were rudely awakened to a completely different concept of the universe. Several other stars were measured after that.

But it was only in the twentieth century that the indirect methods of measuring star distance were discovered, and Hubble measured the distance of other galaxies. The size of the known universe has now become unbearably vast and beyond human comprehension. It would be absurd now to think of humans as being central to the universe, lost as we are in this measureless space.

Another, even more serious, challenge rose from trying to understand the laws that governed the stars. As there was greater progress in observing the motion of stars, several discrepancies were noticed which did not seem to follow the old Newtonian laws. The nature of light, especially its speed also began to attract greater attention. Various scientists analysed the behaviour of light in different ways, both as particle and as wave. This already contradicted the previous theories. The Michelson-Morley experiment, in 1897, showed that light speed was constant under all conditions. It was this experiment which led to the theory that changed all our concepts of the universe.

The brilliant interpretation of this result led to Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1905 and general theory of relativity in 1915. The relativity theories effectively tore down the whole of the Newtonian conception of the universe. In Newton’s world, everything had its time and place and followed fixed laws. But with the relativity theory, this surety of the world disappeared. Einstein related both time and space to the observer. Suddenly there was no absolute time or space, and, with this, the old idea of the universe as a harmonious whole was effaced. No object in the world has an absolute reality. If we consider, for example, the length of a body, then different observations of this length by observers in different frames will give differing figures. All these differing figures are equally true; we cannot consider any of them to be absolutely true and the others false. Hence no object in the universe has an absolute length; all figures for its length are only relatively true. This is also true for its breadth, mass, speed, and so forth.

Even as the theories of relativity were being framed, important challenges were being posed to it by more knowledge of the atom and subatomic particles. The advent of quantum physics began with Max Planck, who in 1900 introduced his quanta theory that energy is emitted in packets, thus giving a physical and quantifiable identity to energy. This was the final blow to the old Newtonian theories. Energy, along with such properties as charge, became a mathematical quantity that physicists used in their calculations along with traditional properties such as mass. All radiation was now said to have both a particle and a wave existence, which soon led to the concept that in fact all matter had both particle and wave characteristics. Along with Einstein’s famous theorem, E=MC2, matter and energy became interchangeable and part of a spectrum, at one end of which was matter, and at the other end, energy.

This merger now led to another very important discovery, Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which proposes that it is impossible to determine both the position and the velocity of a particle at the same time. What it effectively meant was that particles do not have a true existence in the sense that we understand – being both matter and energy simultaneously, which is contradictory to our natural experience – and that they also have several different states of existence. Newer discoveries in the field of submicroscopic particles continue to reveal very strange particles that show all manner of paradoxical behavior, such as appearing out of and vanishing into nothingness. Besides the laws of science, their behavior seems to defy our logic and rationality.

Quantum physics now deals with a world where there is, apparently, almost total anarchy.

The theories of relativity and quantum physics tore down not just Newton’s gravitational laws but the whole traditional idea of God. The lack of any absolute reality in the universe contradicts our entire view of creation. Quantum mechanics shows a world where the smallest particles do not have a distinct, fixed existence, but instead experience several states of existence simultaneously. Therefore, the interactions between particles do not follow a single path and have ambiguous results. There is thus no scope for a supreme power such as God to intervene and control the effects.

The fact that randomness is inbuilt into the world also presents a fundamental contradiction to the theory that god had decreed the laws initially and the world was working out according to His plans: it means that no matter what laws had been given initially, the outcomes of each event would not work out in a fixed predetermined manner but could be anyone of several outcomes. There was no way in which God or any Power would be able to decree the shape or nature of the world by decreeing the initial positions and laws. The world had worked itself out in this way entirely by chance. Hence the real universe is now known to be far different from the common sense view that comes naturally to us. The traditional concepts of God which arose from such a view of the universe cannot coexist with our modern day physics.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

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