Part XVI – Carpets and Schrödinger's Cat
As a side note, we learn by careful analysis that no object in the world (inside the universe) can have a svarUpa lakShaNa. In the example cited, when we say H 2O is its intrinsic structure, it is only at a transactional level. It is a compound made up of parts, H 2 and O 2, and therefore divisible. Everything that is divisible into finer parts cannot have absolute structure since, by reassembly, one loses that svarUpam. That is, its structure is valid only at some relative plane. Hence all objects have relevance and validity only at their transactional level, since they are all assemblages of some other finer structural units.
Let us take the example of a carpet. We all think we know what a carpet is. Yet if we examine not casually but carefully, we find that we do not actually know what a carpet is! The problem is there is no ‘substance’ called carpet. More technically, there is no necessary and sufficient qualification that differentiates a carpet from any other object in the universe. If one looks carefully, what we call a carpet is just an assemblage of polymer fibers, arranged in a particular fashion. If we rearrange the fibers in the form of a heap, it is no longer a carpet. The reason is that there is no substantive called ‘carpet’ apart from a name given for a form assembled using, say, polymer fibers. The fibers, in turn, are an assemblage of some other finer entities called ‘polymer molecules’. And, in principle, one can go on with no end in sight.
Does that mean there is no carpet? Of course, there is carpet; there are fibers and there are molecules, and so on. Each of them has a relative validity in their own plane of reference. Besides, we cannot fully dismiss the carpet, since there is big market for them! Carpet has its utility value or transactional value. We know now that all materials are fundamentally made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. But we still distinguish food from garbage, even though we know that fundamentally they are made of up of the same fundamental units, which are just assembled differently. The point to note is that there is no confusion in understanding as long as we are fully aware at what reference level the discussion is taking place. For the purpose of our discussion, we have a reality at the transactional level and the absolute level, called in Sanskrit vyAvahArika satyam, and pAramArthika satyam, respectively. We will come back to this discussion later when we discuss liberation.
Coming back to our discussion of the svarUpa lakShaNa of any object, there is no intrinsic substantive for any object since every object is an assemblage of simpler units. In the case of water, even H 2 and O 2 can be decomposed into atoms and then smaller particles and if one continues further we will soon end up at the quantum level. Then we end up breaking into finer and finer component particles using high speed accelerators to understand the fundamental building blocks of all matter. In the limit, we run into the peculiar situation wherein the very investigation, which necessarily involves the conscious entity as an observer, affects the observation of the observed. Essentially we come to a limiting case where observations of the fundamental material content depend on the observer, a conscious entity.
Thus the observed object depends on the observer, but the observer does not depend on the observed. That is, the consciousness of the observer is unaffected by the observations. The implication of this limiting case in science is that an investigation of the fundamental building blocks of the universe is futile unless one takes into consideration the role of consciousness. At the quantum level, the concept of a particle becomes blurred with the concept of a wave, or a probability wave. The ‘thought experiment’ of Schrödinger’s cat in Physics illustrates this. A cat is sealed in a box with a flask of poison, a Geiger counter and a radioactive source. In an hour, there is a 50% chance that the source will emit radiation. If it does, the Geiger counter will detect it and cause the flask to break, releasing the poison and killing the cat. If not, the cat will still be alive. Theoretically, the particle is in both states but the cat cannot be both alive and dead so this has to translate to a probability of the cat being alive or dead of 50%. It only becomes 100% alive or dead when the conscious entity, i.e. an observer, interferes with the experiment by opening the chamber for examination. (See Wikipedia for a detailed discussion of the experiment.)
Here we are zeroing in on the essence of the problem. We raised a question before – whether consciousness is a product of matter, as objective scientists seem to insist, or the other way around as Vedanta proclaims. From the point of view of Vedanta, by proclaiming that Brahman is the material cause for the universe, it is negating the validity of the world of plurality, the universe. It is not the plurality that is negated but the validity of the plurality (or reality of the plurality) that is negated. What this means is that plurality is accepted at a relative plane (vyavahAra state) but negated as real from an absolute plane (pAramArthika state). So is the world real or not real? The answer depends on from what point of reference the question is asked. From the point of view of the carpet salesman, carpets are real. But from the point of view of the Chemist, there is no material called carpet, even while he is paying a high price for the carpet that he is buying.
Proceed to the next essay.