“Have you seen glory?”
This unexpected question came from my co-passenger sitting on the window seat. I was on the aisle seat while the middle seat was unoccupied. We were flying to Chennai.
As a policy, I do not enter into unnecessary conversations with my co-passengers, but I found his question peculiar. “Sorry, what exactly do you mean?” I was standoffish.
He paused as if he was thinking how to respond, and then said, “Just lean across and look out of the window!”
I hesitated initially, but ultimately opened my seat belt and quietly complied. I looked in the direction he was pointing to and saw something I had never seen earlier. A circular rainbow far below on the clouds with shadow of our plane in its center. (Figure-1 below)
“Wow! Is it some illusion created by the window pane?” I asked
He smiled, “No, it’s called ‘Glory’, a circular rainbow! It is a rare phenomenon due to peculiar light conditions and rain drops in the clouds.
Now I looked at him with some interest. Asthenic built man, seemed be in his early 50s, very simply dressed in white kurta and blue jeans. I smiled sociably and said, “Thanks for sharing this sight with me, otherwise I would have never known. I wonder, where will one find a pot of gold in this rainbow.”
He looked quizzically towards me, “Sorry, I didn’t understand.”
I laughed, “It is said that there is a pot of gold buried at the spot where the rainbow ends. Something from the Irish mythology!”2
He smiled mildly, “Do you believe in mythology?”
I replied,”Naaaah, I just heard it in my childhood. I firmly believe in science and evidence. Do you?”
He ignored my question, “I apologise for interrupting your chain of thoughts. I got very excited to see this rare phenomenon and I had to share it with someone. Just hours before this flight I was talking about rainbows!”
“What exactly about rainbows?” I asked casually, impressed by his enthusiasm.
He replied cryptically, “That, they do not exist!”
Do Not Exist!
“Are you feeling bad that you were proven wrong so quickly.” I remarked with a bit of sarcasm.
He laughed, “No, just looking at a rainbow doesn’t change my opinion!”
I found that crazy, “Don’t they say that seeing is believing?”
He said, “Just beause you see a ‘thing’, is no proof that it exists. Aristotle said that a ‘thing’ has to have two prerequisites: a form or structure and a substance to make it up.3 A rainbow has a form but no substance. It is an illusion created by your eyes. Just as the blue dome of the sky over your head does not exist. And the water in mirage does not exist!”
I thought over what he was saying and remarked,”Are you a physicist?”
Seeing is Not Believing
“No, I am a realist.” He said. “Have you read Jim Holt’s: Why Does the world Exist – An Existential Detective Story!”
I looked at him. He was now trying to impress me by dropping heavy names. I decided to probe a bit further. “What is his answer to the question in this title?”
His answer was unexpected, “He has discussed several answers. Simplest one is that God has created the world out of nothing! But it may not appeal to the scientist in you.”
“Yes, I will need hard proof as in science!” I asked.
“Science would say it is a quantum fluctuation out of the void. In fact another famous physicist has written a book ‘A Universe from Nothing.’4” He said and looked at me for a response.
“So?” I wasn’t sure where he was heading.
A Universe From Nothing
“The world is considered by him to be an illusion! Only structure – no substance, just like rainbows and unicorns” His answer seemed strange to me.
I queried, “You think the plane we are flying in is unreal?”
He still had a calm smile on his face. “Okay let us look at the substance of this plane. What is this plane made of?”
I thought the answer should have been obvious.“It is made of solid metal, I guess aluminium and steel!”
“Let’s look a bit deeper; what is aluminium made of?”
I replied, “It is an element. It is made of tiny bits of matter. Say aluminium atoms in this case.”
His smile widened, “Remember what you have just said, I will come back to it. But here, I agree with you. I am sure you know that each atom is approximately 99.9999999999996% empty space with a few extremely tiny subatomic particles dancing inside it!5 For example the center of an atom may have protons and neutrons with electrons buzzing at a distance in the space around it.”
“At least some substance is there, even if it is occupying 0.000000000004% of space.?” I stated.
“No! Look deeper. Even these so-called subatomic particles are made up of a zoo of ‘quarks’, ‘fermions’ and ‘bosons’ (they’re supposed to be ultramicroscopic roughly 10-18 meters)!”
I vaguely remembered having read something like it earlier. I remarked, “But that doesn’t make this plane unreal!”
Quarks, Fermions and Bosons
He carried on, “Our conventional physics fails at this stage and you need to take help of theoretical quantum concepts to explain how these minute entities cease to be particles and start beings waves when observed. In quantum physics language they are possibly superstrings of dark energy in some unfathomable dimensions. So there is nothing substantial down there, only waves as in mathematical concepts.”
I could not help but exclaim, “I think, you are weird!”
He replied, “No, the reality is weird. What we perceive as reality is actually an illusion. The same is true with the rainbows, only it’s a bit easier to understand!”
“You are confusing me!” I wasn’t sure what he was trying to convey.
His face suddenly became serious and he said, “An 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley has said – ‘To be, is to be perceived‘. This is what many other philosophers also believe today and call it subjective idealism. 6 More advanced form of this philosophy is known as solipsism, which holds that I alone exist.”7
I alone Exist
I was a skeptical of his concepts, “I don’t agree with this philosophy. Seems unreal to me!”
He again smiled, “You are not alone. Many don’t agree. For example, Dr Samuel Johnson also disagreed. And very forcefully too.”
“How?” I asked.
He said, “In response to Berklay’s philosophy, Samuel kicked a large rock till he cried with pain and proclaimed – I refute it thus!”
“How did Berkley respond to this?” I asked.
“The response came from another poet Richard Wilbur:8‘Kick the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones: But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stone.’ ”
“But what does all this mean?” A simple sight of an unusual rainbow had led to this bizarre conversation.
He cryptically said, “Jim Holt argues that science is telling us something very interesting. Science says that the world around us is all ‘form’ and, like rainbow, has no ‘substance’.”
It From Bit!
Without a pause he added “Another very famous American physicist, John Archibald Wheeler has said that all we see around us derives its very existence entirely from binary choices (particle becomes a wave when observed). Every ‘it’ is derived from ‘bit’.”All things physical in this world are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.9 Remember you too had unknowingly mentioned ‘bits’ of matter?”
“You have left me more confused than ever. Are you a philosopher too?” I asked.
In reply, he quoted a British philosopher, “Galen Strawson says that the mystery about the physical matter is that more we study it, the more it keeps disappearing.10; 11 Even the physicists say the same thing.”
“Which physicist?” I asked.
“Many! For example, Dr Hans-Peter Dürr, the famous German scientists, who succeeded Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg as the President of Max Planck Institute said – I studied matter for 35 years only to find out that it does not exist.”12
Matter Does Not Exist!
“You mean, science says that all that I see around me is unreal?” It was an amusing thought.
He laughed, “Yes, the world that you see around you is a virtual reality. Roger Penrose, the Nobel laureate in Physics, also said the same thing – this world is made up of mathematics!”13
“I find it hard to believe. Does science accept it?” I was more perplexed now.
He gave me another shock,”Three scientists – Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger got the Nobel prize in physics for proving that the Universe is not real. And this was only last year.”14,15,16
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was really outdated,”Don’t tell me! You mean all I see is a virtual reality?”
“Yes sir! It should be evident if you study how we really see!” He said.
“We see with out eyes, clear and sharp.” I remarked
He said, “Stephen Hawking, in his book ‘The Grand Design’ has written an interesting version of your perception.17 All that we ‘see’ around us depends on photons reflected from a mishmash of subnuclear particles that may be waves or actually, vibrations in quantum field when we observe them.”
“The quantum vibrations make the virtual reality?” I remarked
What I See is Virtual Reality!
“In each one of our eyes, there is a significant blind spot corresponding to the optic disc. Area of the retina that can perceive in high resolution is ‘fovea,’ giving us just 1o visual angle around it. Rest of the retina perceives very poor resolution images. What is sent to the brain is a badly pixelated image with two holes (Blind spots of two eyes) in it.” He replied.
“But what I see is very clear.” I said.
He laughed, “Fortunately, the human brain is capable of processing all this data from a two dimensional array to create a complete, high resolution, beautiful 3D image! The world that you ‘see’, is all produced as a result of digital post processing in your brain, just as smartphones now-a-days make people appear beautiful in pictures.”
“Then what is real?” The question just came out from me.
I Am Real!
He replied, “I can only know that I am real. Just as you know that you are.”
“And who are you?” was my next natural question
He replied.“I am the observer! The subject to whom this world is an object, appearing as virtual reality! ”
I voiced my concern, “But aren’t you too made of the same mishmash of quantum vibrations?”
His smile came back,”You are right, my body is, but awareness is not. I am awareness and that is ‘the reality’.”
“But your awareness and consciousness is generated in your brain! And your brain is a part of that mishmash of quantum vibrations.” I exclaimed.
“Think again! No biology or physics experiment has ever shown that. In fact your physics or chemistry does not even know what awareness is. It does not cause any deflection on their instruments.Only you can know that it is ‘Awareness’ that is illuminating the thoughts in your mind!”He calmly replied.
“But my thoughts are generated in my brain” I again shot a comment.
Brain and Consciousness
He did not look at me, but seemed to focus far away, “Your brain only has scattered, buzzing neurons whose activity you can register on various functional scans. Your ‘awareness’ illuminates your perceptions to create this beautiful world as virtual reality.”
“Is this your personal science?” My tone must have conveyed my sarcasm.
He turned towards me and said in a calm voice, “This is a very ancient knowledge in India! Western science is just waking up to it.”
Honestly I did not know what he was talking about. I wanted to know what he meant. We were momentarily interrupted by the pilot’s announcement, but I did not want to let his last statement go uncontested. “What exactly do you mean?”
“All that we have discussed is written in our Upanishads. The West is just coming to realise this concept.” He replied.
Consciousness As An “Entity“
“What is written in our Upanishads?” I asked.
“That our awareness or consciousness is the witness to all we perceive around us and makes it appear as reality. It is also a witness to our thoughts (mind) and our body.”He said.
“But isn’t my consciousness same as my mind?” I asked
He took a deep breath and said, “You have been brought up to believe (thanks to the Western education) that the brain with its billions of nerve synapses somehow produces consciousness and awareness! Isn’t it?
I admitted, “Yes I believe that is true.”
“Well, I will give you one of many a Western experiments that made people realise otherwise.”
I looked at him expectantly.
A Product of Neurons?
He continued, “Ned Block18 has suggested a thought experiment to bring home the truth! Imagine that the Chinese population represents the neurons in the brain. (At the time of this experiment the population of China was 1.4×109 people, while a human brain is estimated to have ≈1011 neurons.) If every Chinese was to communicate by his/her mobile phone with all other Chinese people, would it produce a massive mind? Or would it produce even a bit of new consciousness apart from what people already have?”
I exclaimed, “You mean every neuron is conscious?”
He replied, “You tell me. Can a massive network of inert wires in supercomputer ever experience the smell of a rose or the aroma of coffee in its artificially created consciousness? Can it feel happy or sad?”
I retorted, ” Today many people fear that artificial intelligence can think as well as humans and may be even better!”
“But your computers will never be conscious as human beings. The subjective awareness of the world is unique to living beings. And this awareness or universal consciousness is the only reality which lights up your thoughts and empowers you to generate a virtual reality around you.” He said
I had no answer. I asked, ”you are trying to say that the consciousness is like a quantum field?”
Theory Versus Reality!
He went on,”Your quantum fields and quarks are theories, but consciousness is real and we all feel it. It does exist! Tomorrow, your science may come up up with another theory to explain it in its multiverse concept, but we believe that consciousness is the only fundamental reality.”
“If it is subtler than matter and can create the illusion of matter, it has to be the quantum field!” I remarked.
He responded, ” Can’t say! The world ‘quantum field’ is not there in Upanishads. But we agree that this concept is somewhat similar to what is described in Upanishads.”
“Who are ‘we’?” I asked.
He now replied clearly, “I am a student of Vedanta. ‘We’ means some of us in the group. But our teachers have firmly asked not to draw comparisons with physics.”
“And what does Vedanta say?” I asked.
“Vedanta says a lots of things. Adi Shankaracharya has summarised this vast knowledge in one sentence (Brahmajnanavalimala verse 20), “Brahm satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah. ” He replied.
I found it to be a very familiar sentence that I had been hearing from my childhood. “What does it mean?”
“This world is an illusion, only reality is the consciousness. And there is no difference between Brahman and individual self. Consciousness in Upanishads has several synonyms such as ‘Brahm’ or ‘Brahman’, or ‘Omkar’ or even ‘Sat-Chit-Anand.’” He replied.
Infinite is Incomprehensible!
“Why Sat, Chit and Anand?” I asked.
“Sat, because it is the only reality that I can be sure of. Chit, because it is sentient. Anand, because it is blissful, complete and satisfied in itself.” He replied
“What exactly is it made of?” I asked.
He said, “It has been described in our books as ‘Neti Neti’ 19- which implies Not this Nor That. Meaning it is nothing that human senses can percieve. We cannot know Brahm as an object because it is the Brahm who actually does all the knowing. It is also described that ‘Sarvam Kalvidam Brahman” – which means ‘Verily All This is Brahman’ or ‘everything here is Brahman’.”20
I was vaguely aware of theoretical concepts of quantum foam, entropy in quantum physics and mathematics and about how subatomic particles appear and disappear spontaneously. If consciousness was not matter but could give an illusion of matter, it very much appeared similar to quantum field or foam.21,22 I interjected, “It does seem like quantum field to me.?”
He replied, “Some are trying to imply so but I can not say anything about that.23 I know that Brahm is the only reality, the only absolute truth.”
Are Upanishads without Logic?
I was still a skeptic, “The problem with your ancient books is that they make sweeping statements, about sacrifices and all.” I commented.
He obviously did not like my comment, “The karma-kand that you are referring to, is found in the early part of Vedas that teaches you how to prepare for the real knowledge contained in Upanishads. It was relevant in the olden times (possibly the time when Vedas were transcribed from ‘Shruti’ to a script). It basically tells you how to live in austerity. In today’s world they will possibly ask you to sacrifice your mobile phones. Have you read Vedas?” He asked.
I hesitated but replied anyway“No, I have heard people say it.”
He firmly said, “I have been studying Vedanta for the last 7 years, and I find the teachings very logical. If I may, I would say that you are making a sweeping statement without reading these scriptures.”
He became quiet after adding,”It is really sad that Indians shy away from learning about our own heritage. And the Western scientists are learning from it. They repackage it as their revolutionary thoughts and sell it back to us. I think, you will start believing when it is published in a Western journal or book.”
He had closed his eyes as if in meditation, but I kept looking at him for some time. There was hardly anything I could have said. The subject was not easy to comprehend but I made up my mind to read more about it.
(Note: The characters in the above anecdote are fictitious but the issues discussed are real. Many of the arguments in the blog above are borrowed from Swami Sarvapryianandji’s talks available on youtube. Readers may like to read another blog written on 28 Nov 2020 under the title ‘Conscious Universe’)
|↑4||Krauss LM. A Universe from Nothing. Published by Simon & Schuster 2012, New Delhi.|
|↑17||Hawking S, Mlodinow L. The Grand Design. What is reality (Chapter-3) Bantam Books, Transworld Publishers, London. 2010; pp51-78.|