[Advaita-l] Pratyaksha and anumana as applied to science

Siva Senani Nori sivasenani at yahoo.com
Sat Sep 17 22:51:13 CDT 2011

Reproduced (with due permission) below is a radio-talk by Dr. N. S. Rajaram. His take on how pratyaksha and anumana apply to science is well stated and I thought it might be interesting to some readers. The article is about 2,300 words long and would take about 10 minutes to read.
Radio talk: Recorded Sept 8; to be broadcast Sept
16, 2011
Vedantic thinkers like Patanjali,
Shankara and Madhva had grappled with the same metaphysical questions as modern
physicists. They relate in particular to the dual nature of reality and the
domain of scientific theories.
Dr. Navaratna S. Rajaram
Background: common ground
            First I want to thank Prasara
Bharati and the All India Radio for inviting me to give this talk on subjects
close to my heart— science and philosophy, and philosophy of science. For my
talk today I have chosen a subject of great interest to both scientists and
philosophers— Vedanta and quantum physics. I just returned from a conference on
the subject in the U.S. and have given several talks on the topic in the U.S.,
India and U.K. which have allowed me to see its relevance at first hand. The
interest ranges from particle physics to frontier technologies like quantum
information and computing, but in this talk I’ll stick to the basics.
            I’ll begin my talk by posing the
question: what do Vedanta and quantum physics have in common? A good deal it
turns out, especially if we want to understand the reality of the world
described by modern physics. Quantum physics is the physics of the micro-cosmic
world— the world of atoms, protons, electrons and others that we cannot see.
This forces us to try to understand the unseen world on the basis of what we
can see and measure in our laboratories.
            This means we don’t really know what
goes on in the quantum world of light (photons), atoms, electrons and other
elementary particles because we cannot see them. We know only how they interact
with our apparatus in the laboratory. When we say light is both wave and particle we only mean that we see wave like patterns when light acts on our
laboratory equipment. From that interaction between invisible things like light
waves and the visible lab equipment we try to draw conclusions about what the
quantum world is really like.
            This produces a gap in our knowledge
of the world between what we can see and what we are trying to describe. This
means there are two worlds— the physical world which is nature’s creation and
the world described by mathematical theories created by scientists based on
experiments and observations in the laboratory. Vedanta also recognized this
duality in our knowledge of what we perceive and the world as it really is.
This is a much deeper form of duality than that of wave-particle duality.
Direct and derived knowledge
            Patanjali in his Yogasutra described knowledge as pratyaksha (direct), anumana (inferred or derived), and agama (compiled). In classical physics,
which includes relativity, knowledge was more or less direct. What you saw was
what you got. So scientists could create theories based on observations and
expect them to apply to the physical world and the universe. These theories, in
Patanjali’s words were anumana or
derived not direct, but still a real description of nature. The duality between pratyaksha and anumana was there but not apparent.
            As a result, until about a century ago
scientists didn’t need to worry too much about the reality of the physical
world they were trying to understand and describe. They could assume that the
things they were observing and measuring were real. When doubts arose about the
reality of some ideas used in their theories, like light waves in the
eighteenth century, they assumed that the question would be settled by some
clever experiment. This did happen in 1801 when Thomas Young in a famous
experiment demonstrated the wave nature of light.
            But the situation began to change
when scientists started introducing into their theories things like atoms that could
not directly be observed. Even in the twentieth century there were scientists
who refused to believe that atoms were real. 
            What convinced scientists was not
any experiment but Einstein’s explanation of the irregular movement of
particles suspended in a liquid known as Brownian motion. Jean Perrin’s 1909
experiment verified one of Einstein’s predictions based on the atomic theory of
Brownian motion without actually observing atoms. This was the beginning of
atomic physics that soon became entangled with quantum theory and all that came
with it.
Quantum revolution
            The big shift was the coming of the
quantum.  In 1900 the German physicist
Max Planck said that energy doesn’t flow in a continuous stream but in discrete
units which he called quanta. No one today doubts the reality of the quantum
any more than the reality of the atom, but to Planck it was purely a mathematical
trick needed to resolve some anomalies observed in heat radiation; he never
believed that quanta were real. Five years later, Einstein extended the quantum
idea to light to explain the photoelectric effect which wave theory could not.
As he saw it, light flowed not in a continuous stream like water but in
discrete lumps like ice cubes coming out of a vending machine. 
            Unlike Planck, Einstein had no doubt
that his light quanta, now called photons were real. He also realized that he
had brought about a fundamental change in physics. Writing to a friend in 1905,
the ‘miracle year’ in which he created the special theory of relativity, explained
Brownian motion and introduced the light quantum, he described only the quantum
theory of light as being ‘truly revolutionary’. At a conference in Salzburg in
1909 Einstein proclaimed: “The next phase of the development of theoretical
physics will bring us a theory of light that can be interpreted as a kind of
fusion of the wave and particle theories.” 
Neither Einstein nor anyone else at the time could have known
where this wave-particle duality of light would take physics. At first, things
seemed natural enough with the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom explaining
light emission and spectral lines, though Niels Bohr, soon to be recognized as
the second seminal figure of twentieth century physics (after Einstein)
professed that he didn’t care for Einstein’s light quantum idea.
In his famous equation E = mc2 Einstein had
already shown that matter and energy are one and the same. Now he was saying
that light, which is a form of energy, is both waves and particles. Louis de
Broglie connected the two and proposed that matter also had to be waves. This
too received experimental support. Next, if matter can be a wave, there must be
a wave equation describing it. This was supplied by Erwin Schrödinger, though
no one at first seemed to understand what it was wave of. Then Max Born offered
the explanation that it was not really a wave like a water wave or a sound
wave, but an abstract mathematical function that allowed one to calculate the
probability of finding a particle like electron at a particular place.
(An interesting sidelight: Max Born may be a major figure in
modern physics but the public probably knows his granddaughter better. She is
the famous actress Olivia Newton-John.)
Werner Heisenberg threw a bombshell into this mix with what is
called the uncertainty principle. He claimed that it is impossible to know both
the position and the velocity (or momentum) of a particle exactly. Just as
Einstein’s relativity theory placed a limit on velocity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty
principle placed a limit on knowledge. All one can calculate is the probability
of a particle like the electron going from one place to another, say from the
earth to the moon, and not the path by which it gets there. Worse, the electron
doesn’t even exist until we observe it on the moon. So it is the observer that defines its existence.
(I use the term ‘electron’ generically, to mean any
subatomic particle including the light photon.)
So here was the new reality: a wave equation without a wave
that is needed to find a particle that becomes real only when we observe it. As
Heisenberg saw it, “Reality has evaporated into mathematics.” His colleague
Pascual Jordan, who might have won a Nobel Prize but for his unsavory politics
(he became a Nazi storm trooper) said, “There is no reality; we ourselves
create things with our experiments.” Bohr, the high priest of this new physics
proclaimed: “Physics is not about reality but about our knowledge of reality.” This is like saying nature is what our
physics theories say it is. This means it has no independent existence.
            Einstein was unhappy with the turn
of events in the revolution that he had done so much to launch. To him the
physical world was reality, not something that evaporated into its mathematical
dual created by physicists. They were now saying reality is only what we
observe; what we don’t observe doesn’t exist. But Einstein asked: “Do you
really believe that the moon exists only when I am looking at it?” 
Vedanta: orders of reality
            The curious thing is that this
philosophical muddle grew out of experiments, not just metaphysical
speculation. To make sense of this mass of contradictions, some of the pioneers
of quantum physics like Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer and David
Bohm turned to eastern philosophy. There they found that some of the problems
lying at the center of new physics like duality, reality, and existence had
received the attention of Hindu philosophers of the school known as Vedanta (of
which yoga is probably the best known). 
            Of these Schrödinger was a committed
Vedantin. He wrote: “It is quite easy to express the solution in words, thus:
the plurality [of interpretations] that we perceive is only an appearance; it is not real. Vedantic philosophy, in which this is a fundamental
dogma, has sought to clarify it by a number of analogies, one of the most
attractive being the many-faceted crystal which, while showing hundreds of
little pictures of what is in reality a single existent object, does not really
multiply the object.” 
            In this he had been anticipated by
Acharya Madhva (1238 – 1317) who gave the most penetrating insights into the
question. In his work on reality called Tattva-Viveka Madhva observed: “There are two ordersof
Reality─ independent and the dependent.” And in what amounts to an anticipation
of Heisenberg and Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics,
Madhva asserted: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, is to
be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One.” 
            Now scientists including me and my
colleagues are finding Madhva’s way of looking at duality and reality can
simplify the reality question in quantum physics. (What is encouraging is that
Madhva’s Order Principle, as it may be called, is amenable to mathematical
treatment. I have done it myself, but it is not appropriate for a talk like the
present. And for the same reason, I have also not said anything about important
results like Bell’s theorem and its experimental results.)
            Madhva’s predecessor Shankara (788 –
821) saw the world as conceived in latent form in pure consciousness like the
tree in a seed. “The relation between the world of multiplicity and the
Absolute is an inconceivable one.” Madhva on the other hand wanted to understand
            Shankara also said: “Scripture is
not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception
can be from karma (actions or
empirical facts) and jnana (gnosis or
thought) through reflection or deduction.” And most significantly for our
purpose, he also claimed: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its
manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the
sphere of duality.”
            Where does all this leave us?
Reality and our conception of it, can the twain never meet?
see the question of Reality as a possible meeting ground between Vedanata and
modern physics, especially quantum mechanics. Reality is the Holy Grail of
quantum physics; it is an area in which Vedanta has already made a significant
contribution; it can do still more and thereby come to occupy the center stage
in modern metaphysics. The real question is the relationship between the Vedantic
approach and that of modern physics. To understand this, let us try to see
where we stand.
physicists Heisenberg, Bohr and their followers held that there was no reality
beyond our observations and theories. Schrödinger on the other hand believed that
the many manifestations that we observe with different people represent a
single entity in a single reality. In effect he was invoking a version of advaita philosophy. But we cannot wish away duality. We have the wave-particle duality
of both light and matter. We have the
more profound duality of the real world (the unmanifest) and the world
described by our theories and experiments (the manifest).
means we need to understand natural phenomena based on how they manifest
themselves in our laboratories but recognize that the two are not the same.
Part of the problem is that results in quantum physics violate what we take to
be fundamental laws of physics like the limit set by velocity of light
(non-locality) and occupying multiple states (superposition). 
brings us back to what Madhva said in his Tattva-Viveka: there exist two orders of reality, the manifest and the unmanifest. It is
the goal of both Vedanta and quantum physics to understand the relationship
between these two manifestations of reality. It is a central problem in physics
today as it has always been in Vedanta. The two can and should work together.
Navaratna Rajaramis a mathematical scientist who has taught science and
engineering at several American universities. He has also been a consultant to
several high technology companies and to NASA. His books include The Deciphered Indus Script (2000) and Hidden Horizons (2006). He is currently
working on the book Quantum Yoga and the Meaning
of Reality. 

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