Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Science and Reality
Ananda Wood

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Ananda Wood


Read Ananda Wood's essays on the Teaching of Sri Atmananda.

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Q: What is it that is the whole? When we consider a table, for instance, we find that it is impossible to think of the table without the conception containing within it the parts of the table.

A: Yes, this chicken and egg problem is inherent in the constructions of thought. In order to deal with its inherent partiality, the mind is obliged to analyse and synthesize. Each thought of mind has to be analysed, in order to make up for details that it has left out. And it has also to be synthesized with other thoughts that it does not include. In either case, there is an infinite regress, with no conclusion possible, microcosmically or macrocosmically. No picture that the mind conceives can be accurate enough in its finer details, nor broad enough in its overall expanse, to give a true account of the reality described.

So, as the mind conceives a table, how can we know what is described? What reality is shown by the various pieces of perception that the mind receives about the table and the various descriptions that are built from these pieces?

Each piece of perception tells us something about the table. So also each constructed description. Each is a part appearance of the table's reality. Each partly shows and partly hides what the table really is. Whether we see the table leg or the table top or some grains of the table's wood through a microscope, or whether the table is perceived from one side or another or from above or below or in relation to its chairs and the room in which it's found, or whether the table is conceived and described sensually or mechanically or mathematically or intuitively or passionately or judiciously, the table in itself is known through each of these perceptions and descriptions.

What is the 'table in itself'? It is exactly the reality that's truly known, through all the differing appearances that are produced by perceiving and describing it in different ways. That's what is meant by the word 'real'. What's 'real' is what's known in common, through the differing perceptions of our senses and the differing conceptions and descriptions of our minds. What's real stays the same, while differing appearances of it are formed by changing instruments of body, sense and mind.

From this analysis, it is clear that reality cannot be known by any summation or analysis of physical or mental parts. Each part is an appearance formed by body or by mind, and any summation or analysis does nothing more than form another such appearance. The only way to know what's real is through a reflective questioning, which must turn back from changing appearances to what each shows. There has to be a questioning that leaves the change behind, so as to find an unchanged reality.

In the word 'real', there is thus an essential question. The word inherently implies a reflective enquiry -- from differing and changing appearances of body and of mind, to what they show that stays unchanged in common to them all.

I therefore find it very confusing that modern university philosophy should use the term 'realism' to describe a standpoint which attributes reality to material objects. Why not call such a standpoint 'materialist'? That's what it is, plainly and simply. To call it 'realist' is to go along with a habitual assumption that material objects are real, as perceived by our material senses and instruments. And this begs the very question for which the word 'real' stands.

This curious begging of the question is even stranger for the fact that modern physics has been greatly advanced by a rather profound asking of this same question, by Alfred Einstein. He pointed out that our material observations and measurements of space, time, speed, energy and mass are inherently relative to the observer. They are inherently different for different observers, and so they are only relative appearances of something more profoundly real that physics must investigate.

Einstein's theories of relativity arose from asking what is invariant, and therefore real, beneath our varying measurements and observations of seemingly material things. He was very much of a realist, but not at all a materialist. He talked about a 'dematerialization of physics', which his theories carry forward to an extraordinary degree. In the general theory of relativity, both matter and force are treated as seeming appearances of an invariant space-time continuum, in which events are related upon the basis of a four-dimensional geometry.

A previously material mechanics of matter and force is thus replaced by a space-time geometry that interconnects observed events. The geometry is complicated by a four-dimensional curvature, which produces the appearances of matter and force. As different observers travel differently through space and time, they see the same continuum that's common to them all. What seem to be material objects with forced interactions are only relative appearances that differ from observer to observer. The differences and changes of material appearance are only the result of different and changing points of view. Each appearance shows the one, invariant continuum, which stays the same, beneath the differences of our material observations. To this extent, it turns out that a purely geometric continuum is more real than our material views of it.

But there are two problems with the general theory of relativity. One is a matter of physical science: that this theory is as yet successful only in accounting for the force of gravity. Gravity is a macroscopic force whose effect predominates at large scales of size. So, by accounting for this force, general relativity is mainly used for our large scale pictures of the universe. But there are other forces (like electromagnetism) which predominate at smaller scales of size. These are currently accounted for by quantum theory, which provides modern physicists with their microscopic pictures of molecules and atoms and sub-atomic particles.

And quantum theory is a rather confused mixture of the material and immaterial. Specifically, it tries to use material instruments (with gross material specifications) to measure quanta and quantum fields that are far more subtly described by a more subtle geometric analysis of field conditioning in space and time. From this mismatch, of gross measuring instruments and a far greater subtlety of what is measured, many paradoxes and confusions rise. And modern physicists are not yet able to reconcile the macroscopic view of general relativity with the microscopic views of quantum physics.

There is a fundamental problem here. Einstein's relativity theory has an essentially realistic approach, which aims at continuity and certainty. Quantum theory has an essentially pragmatic approach, based upon principles of discontinuity and uncertainty that are conceived to always compromise whatever can be known. In many ways, the argument between Einstein and quantum physicists (like Niels Bohr) is somewhat similar to the argument between Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist schools of thought. Einstein's position, like Advaita, is a refusal to stop short at anything less than a complete realism. Quantum physicists, like many Buddhist schools, are advocates for an abandonment of just that refusal.

The second problem with Einstein's relativity is philosophical. The space-time continuum (like the older concept of 'akasha' or 'ether') has still a trace of the material in it. It is still conceived as divided into localities or neighbourhoods, which are parts or pieces of the continuum. So it is still a form of matter, though it is subtle rather than gross. The concept may of course be made more sophisticated, by conceiving of an inherent correspondence between the whole macrocosm and each individual microcosm, or in other words between the entire continuum and each of its neighbourhoods. Some physicists (like David Bohm and like some chaos theorists) have already begun thinking along these lines. Through such a correspondence, the reality of each particular object (like a table) would be shown to be the same as the reality of the entire world.

But, in the end, all theories of the world must be material. That would of course include Shri Shankara's Maya theory. So long as a world is described or explained, the description or the explanation is a construct that is made up of differentiated elements. Any such construction introduces a kind of matter that is divided into bits and pieces, no matter how subtle.

Thus we are back to the need for a turned-back questioning, by which the mind so undermines and doubts its own constructions that it jumps right out of them, to be dissolved in unconstructed truth. But, can such truth be ever found? Is truth no more than an attribute of some constructed statements? Can truth have a reality that is completely independent of constructing and constructed mind? Such questions must stay open to enquiry, so long as any trace of conceiving thought remains.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012