Continuing the series of blogposts on the theme ‘Advaita and Science’, in this VI part we take some time to study some of the writings of Mr.John Dobson. While I had heard a lot about John Dobson’s deep interest in Vedanta, I had not read any of his many books on the subject of Vedanta and Science. I sought an opinion about him from a very knowledgeable friend of mine living in the West and this is what I got as a reply:
// John Dobson is an extremely erudite scientist/scholar of Vedanta, astronomer by profession. He was a disciple of Sw. Ashokananda, and was a sannyasi for nearly 20 years in the Ramakrishna mission in California. ….
He has a very readable booklet at:
(downloadable in zip format) [I hear that the geocities site may soon be closing.]
I have heard him lecture, and I think he has a good grasp of Vedanta philosophy.//
Here presented below are some excerpts from Dobson’s book ‘The Equations of Maya’:
THE EQUATIONS OF MAYA
We have talked a little bit about equations and a great deal about maya. Now we have to take a hard look at our physics to see if any of our equations can be taken as descriptive of maya.
First of all, let me remind you that the physics of the last century — the physics of Swami Vivekananda’s day — was nothing like the physics of this century. In those days it was taken for granted that the mix of the chemical elements in the Universe had been given at the time of creation — if there was a creation — or had been around forever — if there was a forever — and that if you just kept shuffling the mix long enough, it would come out in the present configuration again. The swami sometimes referred to that view. Don’t take it as “gospel truth”; he is just quoting the scientific view of his day. In those days it was taken for granted that the Universe consists of real particles with real mass and real energy moving through real space in real time. It was taken for granted that mass and energy were different things, that space and time were independent of each other, and that if we knew the present position and momentum of the particles, we could predict the entire past and future of the Universe. No one thinks like that now. There have been some major revolutions in our understanding of physics since then, and they began just after Swami Vivekananda passed away.
In the winter of 1895-96, Swami Vivekananda met Nikola Tesla and asked him if he could show that what we call matter is just potential energy. The swami said, “I am to go and see him next week to get this new mathematical demonstration,” (10) which apparently never came. It is probably unfortunate that Tesla didn’t get it shown, because if relativity theory had arisen out of a suggestion by Swami Vivekananda, the history of modern physics might have looked very different. The notion that what we see as matter is just potential energy was published as an appendix to Einstein’s relativity paper ten years later, in 1905.
In 1905, Einstein changed our geometry from 3-D to 4-D. He put time into our geometry where it belongs. Time and space come into the geometry as a pair of opposites, so that if the space separation and the time separation between two events, say here-now and there-then, are equal, the total separation between those two events is zero.
Euclid assumed that space separations are objective, but Euclid’s geometry is a theoretical geometry about a theoretical space that does not, in fact, exist. Space separations, and separations in time, are not objective. Observers moving with respect to each other measure different distances between there and here, and different times between then and now. What is objective is the total separation, the space-time separation, between there-then and here-now.
The equation looks very much like Pythagoras’ equation for the hypotenuse of a right triangle. In Pythagoras’ equation you square the two sides of the triangle, add the squares, and take the square root of that sum. But in Einstein’s equation, to get the space-time separation between two events, you square the time separation and subtract it from the square of the space separation, and take the square root of that difference. (11) So that if the space and time separations between those two events are equal, the total separation between them is zero. And that puts the separation between the perceiver and the perceived at zero, because always we see events away from us in space by the trick of seeing them back in time in just such a way that the total separation is zero. That separation equation, as I see it, is one of the equations of maya. If this Universe is apparitional, like a dream, then the separation between the dreamer and the dream must be zero.
It was this change in the geometry that allowed Einstein to realize that what we see as mass (matter) is just potential energy. E = m. That is the equation that Swami Vivekananda hoped to get from Tesla. So now we see that matter (mass), as well as energy, is just the underlying existence showing through in the apparition. So that equation, too, is an equation of maya. (12)
There are many things which are easier to see now than they were in Einstein’s day before the discovery of neutron stars and before the suspicion of black holes went public. It is easy to see now that the gravitational energy transformed to kinetic energy in the fall of an object to the surface of a neutron star would be a tenth of its rest mass, so that the energy released in the splash of a ten gram marshmallow on a neutron star would be enough to vaporize a town. It is easy to see now that, falling to the event horizon of a small black hole, one third of the energy would be released, and that all of it would be released if the black hole contained all the rest of the matter in the observable Universe. It is easy to see now that as Einstein said in 1917, “There can be no inertia relative to ‘space’, but only an inertia of masses relative to one another.” And it is easy to see now that that inertia is related to their separation in the gravitational field, and not to their proximity to each other, as Einstein seems to have thought. (13)
It is easy to see now that the Universe is wound up against gravity because the undivided shows through in the separation. And it is easy to see now that the Universe is wound up against the electrical charges of the minuscule particles because the infinite shows through in the smallness. (14) And we owe a great deal of these considerations to Einstein. But there is another revolution that has taken place in our physics which is considered even more basic than Einstein’s change in our geometry. That is quantum mechanics.
Matter does not behave according to our genetic expectations. Our genetic expectations are Newtonian. They assume Euclidian geometry, and they assume Newtonian physics. They take for granted that space separations are real, and that causation is transformational. That is why so many people have so much trouble “understanding” relativity and quantum mechanics. Our genetic expectations are offended. We cannot easily accept the fact that it is impossible to know everything about a physical system, just as it is impossible to identify the snake for which a rope has been mistaken. But there is this deep uncertainty lying at the bottom of our physics.
In the late 1920’s, Werner Heisenberg pointed out that the product of our necessary uncertainty in where a particle is and our necessary uncertainty in its momentum can never be smaller than Planck’s constant over two pi. Also that the product of our necessary uncertainty in when something happens and our necessary uncertainty in the energy of the happening can never be less than that same amount. This is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which I take to be another of the equations of maya. What it says is that if we see what we see through the screen of time and space, we cannot quite tell what it is that we see.
Richard Feynman has said that every statement in quantum mechanics is a restatement of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This quantum behavior is what keeps the electron from sitting down on the proton in a hydrogen atom, in spite of the enormous electrical attraction between them. If we knew that much about its position, our necessary uncertainty in its momentum would be so large that the momentum associated with that uncertainty would be enough to drive it off. That is why we don’t fall through the floor. If the electrons are pushed too close to the nuclei, they simply buzz harder and keep us up. That’s why the planets don’t collapse. It’s the uncertainty necessitated by the fact that the first cause of our physics is apparitional.
These three equations, as I see it, are some of the equations of maya. Einstein’s separation equation sets the separation between the perceiver and the perceived at zero. The dream is in the dreamer. We see the bright star Sirius eight and a half light years away from us by the trick of seeing it eight and a half years ago. And the distance away comes in squared with a plus sign but the time ago comes in squared with a minus sign, so that if the two are equal, the total separation goes to zero. Einstein’s more famous equation, E = mc2, in which “energy is set equal to mass,” is the equation which Swami Vivekananda had hoped to get from Tesla, because, as he said, “There cannot be two existences, only one.” And Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle includes the notion that the observer is always mixed up in what he sees. There is no longer any talk of a Universe independent of the observer any more than there is talk of an apparitional snake independent of the person who is seeing the apparition.
Whence and Whither?
For a long time I have felt that the physicists were just on the verge of noticing that the first cause of our physics is apparitional, that our physics is the physics of an apparitional Universe. I mentioned it to Johnny Carson when I was on his show a couple of years ago. I said that when you mistake a rope for a snake, what you do is to look at it very carefully, and you notice that it has these diagonal markings on its back. And you think, “It looks like a rope. Have we had ropes long enough for the snakes to imitate them?” And you call it a rope-snake. Then you look carefully at the end where the rattles should have been and you see hemp fibers. “Aha! Rope-snake hempii.” There was so much laughter that I couldn’t finish. We were cut off by the music. But what I wanted to say was that when you find that the head end is also hemp fibers, you realize that it really is a rope. I wanted to say that only this last step has not yet been taken by the physicists. Relativity and quantum mechanics are not about an actual Universe. We already have the physics of an apparition.
There are some interesting differences between the physicists and the mystics. The mystics take existence for granted, and want to get from here to there. They want to see beyond the apparition. And the physicists are likely to take non-existence for granted, and want to get from there to here. The Big Bang cosmologists want to get the Universe out of nothing. It’s like asking us to believe that nothing made everything out of nothing. But that’s not what shows in our physics. If behind what we see there were only a zero, then where would gravity come from, and electricity, and inertia? I have to side with the mystics. On observational grounds I have to take existence for granted.
Another interesting difference is that the physicists are Parinamavadins. They believe that causation is transformational and that the Universe is actual, whereas the mystics are Vivartavadins. Regardless of what they write in their books or what they say from the pulpit, all the mystics and religious aspirants agree that faith is at the root of spiritual experience. And that would not be possible unless the Universe were apparitional. If the milk has been made into buttermilk, faith that it’s milk will be of no avail; whereas, if you have mistaken your friend for a ghost, faith that it’s your friend ends the problem.
Here let me remind you that physics and philosophy are our maps. They can be judged as true or false according to whether they correspond or do not correspond to fact. But mysticism (or religion) is a journey, and about a journey one does not ask whether it is true or false, but only where it goes. Will it take me to the goal?
Our problem is to reach the goal. To see beyond the screen. You remember that Swami Vivekananda said that the Universe is the Absolute seen through the screen of time, space, and causation. It’s no use asking how the Absolute became the Universe. The Absolute has not become the Universe any more than the rope has become a snake. Our problem is to see it straight. And you remember that Sri Ramakrishna said that maya is nothing but the egotism of the embodied soul. And that is genetic……
Our problem is to reach the goal, and not be hoodwinked by the genes. But this is not a journey from one place to another in an actual world. It is a journey from one point of view to another. That is why it is often referred to as an “inner journey.” It is a journey from an erroneous point of view, dictated by the genes, to a point of view from which we can see through the genetic mirage.
And let me remind you that space is not that which separates the many, but that which seems to separate the one. And in that space that oneness shines, therefore falls whatever falls. And space is not that in which we see the small, but that in which the infinite appears as small. And in that space that vastness shines, therefore bursts whatever bursts, therefore shines whatever shines. And finally, time is not that in which we see the changing, but that in which the changeless seems to change. And in that time that changeless shines, therefore rests whatever rests, therefore coasts whatever coasts.
Swami Vivekananda said that science and religion would meet and shake hands. I think that time has come
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Om Tat Sat