Published in philoso.philica.com
A twenty-five centuries old paradigm has passed its expiry date. It is no longer appropriate to ask: what are the ultimate building blocks and how do they interact and combine? The right questions proceed from the assumption that what ultimately exists is a single, intrinsically ineffable Being. How does this manifest itself? How does it come to constitute an apparent multitude of objects? After treating you to the answers from contemporary physics, I turn to the deeper answers from Indian philosophy in general and Sri Aurobindo in particular. That intrinsically ineffable Being relates to its manifestation in a threefold manner: it is the substance that constitutes, the consciousness that contains, and an infinite Quality-Delight that expresses and experiences itself. By a multiple exclusive concentration it assumes, first, the aspect of a multitude of separate selves and, last, the aspect of a multitude of formless particles — the latter in order to set the stage for the Adventure of Evolution. I conclude by explaining why the laws of physics are essentially tautological: if you want to set the stage for evolution via a process that results in a multitude of formless particles, then these laws must have exactly the form that they do.
1. Quantum matters (sat)
Quantum mechanics is the general theoretical framework of contemporary physics. When properly interrogated, it tells us that a twenty-five centuries old paradigm has passed its expiry date. It is no longer appropriate to ask: what are the ultimate building blocks and how do they interact and combine? The notorious difficulty of making sense of the quantum world is not that we don't understand Nature's answers. It is due to the fact that Nature fails to make sense of our questions.
The right questions to ask proceed from the assumption that what ultimately exists is a single, intrinsically ineffable Being. How does this manifest itself? How does it come to constitute an apparent multitude of objects? How does it realize their properties? If you turn to quantum mechanics with questions of this sort, you will be surprised at the simplicity and straightness of the answers you get. Among them is the most economical creation story ever told: by entering into spatial relations with itself, that intrinsically ineffable Being gives rise to both matter and space, for space is nothing but the totality of existing spatial relations, while matter is simply the corresponding apparent multitude of relata — apparent because the relations are self-relations.
Why self-relations? If you consider the so-called "ultimate constituents of matter" by themselves, out of relation to each other, they lack properties. The reason this is so is that all physical properties are defined in terms of relations. This includes the shapes of things. The form of a composite object is the totality of its internal spatial relations. Objects lacking internal relations, such as quarks and electrons, are formless. In addition to that, quantum mechanics rules out the existence of intrinsically distinct substances. So if you contemplate any two of the so-called "ultimate constituents" of matter by themselves, you are contemplating one and the same thing twice. The true number of "ultimate constituents" is one.
As said, the right questions to ask proceed from the assumption that what ultimately exists is a single, intrinsically ineffable Being. Why intrinsically ineffable? Well, if properties resolve themselves into relations between Being and Being, there is no property that can be attributed to Being itself.
Of all the weird features of the quantum world, none is more baffling than the supervenience of the microworld on the macroworld. Supervenience is a philosophical term for a relation between two types of properties. Properties of type B are said to supervene on properties of type A if objects cannot differ in their B-properties without differing in their A-properties. Here is an example from neurophilosophy: for a devout materialist, mind states supervene on brain states. This means that if two brains are exactly alike then the corresponding minds must have exactly the same thoughts, sensations, perceptions, etc.
The microworld supervenes on the macroworld in the sense that molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles have the properties that they do because of what happens or is the case in the macroworld of tables, chairs, and lab equipment. The properties of the microworld depend on the properties of the macroworld rather than the other way round as we are wont to think. In the quantum world, to be is to be measured. A property exists only if, only when, and only to the extent that its possession is indicated by a macroscopic event or state of affairs.
If quantum theory tells us how the world is manifested, rather than how it is put together, then this dependence of the small on the large is not so very hard to understand. Quantum mechanics affords us a glimpse "behind" the manifested world — the macroworld — at formless particles, non-visualizable atoms, and partly visualizable molecules, which, instead of being the world's constituent parts or structures, are instrumental in its manifestation. But we cannot describe what lies "behind" the manifested world except in terms of the finished product — the manifested world. Here is an analogy: if you experience something the like of which you never experienced before, you are obliged to describe it in terms of things that you did experience before. The reason for the supervenience of the microscopic on the macroscopic, however, is not merely a lack of descriptive terms but a lack of attributable properties.
Here is an example. We tend to think of space as an intrinsically divided expanse, which is to say as something that has parts. Hence if we imagine an object and a part or region of space, we tend to think that this object — at any rate, its center-of-mass — has to be either inside or outside that region. In reality, a region of space only exists if it is physically realized — made real — for instance by being the sensitive region of a detector. To be able to say truthfully that a particle is inside a certain region, we need a detector not merely for indicating the particle's presence inside that region. In the first place, the detector is needed in order that that region be real and the property of being in it be available for attribution to the particle. If the region is not realized, then it is neither true nor false but meaningless to say that the particle is in it.
2. Involution (chit)
If the quantum world is mysterious, so is consciousness. How can a material thing be conscious? How can there be consciousness of material things? The answer — at any rate, the short version of it — is that there is no such thing as a material thing. There is a single, intrinsically ineffable Being. This manifests itself, and quantum mechanics tells us how. But it does not only manifest itself. It manifests itself to itself. It is not only that by which the world exists but also the self for which the world exists. It is not only the substance that constitutes but also the consciousness that contains. It is both the sat and the chit of the Vedantic trinity sachchid?nanda (sat-chit-?nanda).
We have seen, however fleetingly, how the one ineffable Being becomes — without ceasing to be the one ineffable Being — an apparent multitude of propertyless particles. How does the one Self become an apparent multitude of individual selves? We all know first-hand what it means to imagine things. So we can conceive of a consciousness that creates its own content. With a little effort we can also conceive of this consciousness as simultaneously adopting a multitude of viewpoints within its content. We also know first-hand the phenomenon of exclusive concentration, when awareness is focused on a single object or task while other goings-on are registered or attended to subconsciously, if at all. As Sri Aurobindo explains, it is by such a multiple exclusive concentration that the one Self assumes the aspect of a multitude of individual selves and loses sight, in each self, of its identity with the other selves and with the Self of all selves.
Once we have a multiple concentration of consciousness, the action by which the one Self creates its content differentiates into a subjective action on the part of each individual qua self and an objective action on the part of each individual qua substance. And once we have an exclusive concentration of consciousness — which means ignorance, the Vedantic avidya — these actions further differentiate, the subjective one into a conscious and a subconscious part, the objective one into a voluntary and an involuntary part.
Ignorance, as we all know, has its degrees. Sachchid?nanda can deepen its multiple exclusive concentration to the point that its individualized subjective action — which is one of Sri Aurobindo's definitions of mind — ceases. It can farther deepen its multiple exclusive concentration to the point that even its individualized objective action — which of Sri Aurobindo's definitions of life — ceases. What then exists is a multitude of formless individuals, for it is life (in this particular sense) that is responsible for the existence of individual forms.
Thus it is one and the same process — namely, a multiple exclusive concentration — that produces the multitude of selves and, when carried to its farthest extreme, the multitude of formless particles.
3. The adventure of evolution (?nanda)
What ultimately exists relates to its manifestation in a threefold manner: it is the substance that constitutes, it is the consciousness that contains, and it is (subjectively speaking) an infinite bliss — ?nanda — and (objectively speaking) an infinite quality infinitely expressing and experiencing itself.
Then why does it hide in formless particles? Why does it subject their relations to apparently self-effective laws? In this world, sachchid?nanda is playing Houdini, imprisoning and enchaining itself as rigorously as it can, challenging itself to escape, to re-discover and re-affirm its powers in what seems to be a universe of mechanical forces and random events. Its multiple exclusive concentration allows it to enter various states of ignorance and incapacity so as to experience growth in knowledge and power, the excitement of conquest and discovery, the surprise of the unknown, the challenge of opposition, the triumph of victory.
4. Closing the circle
Back to physics. Since the word "fundamental" does not have a comparative, a theory is either fundamental or it is not. If a physical theory is fundamental and complete, then it is capable of explaining everything else and therefore incapable of being explained by anything else — except teleologically, by pointing out the reasons why it has the particular form that it does.
One of the reasons why the general theoretical framework of contemporary physics has the particular form that it does, is that without it stable objects could not exist, specifically, objects that
have spatial extent (they "occupy space"),
are composed of a (large but) finite number of objects without spatial extent (particles that do not "occupy space"),
and are stable (they neither explode nor collapse as soon as they are created).
The existence of such objects requires the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics to be exactly what it is, namely quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is a probability calculus. Given the outcomes of measurements that have been made, it allows us to calculate the probabilities of the possible outcomes of measurements that may be made. And that's it.
Because quantum mechanics presupposes measurements, its consistency requires the existence of measurements. And it is eminently plausible that the existence of measurements in turn requires the validity of all empirically tested physical theories — namely, the so-called "standard model" and Einstein's theory of gravity — at least as effective theories (Mohrhoff, 2002, 2006 ). (An effective theory is a theory that is valid over some but not all scales of length.)
This is a humbling conclusion, for it means that all empirically tested physical theories are essentially tautological. If you want spatially extended objects that neither explode nor collapse the moment they are formed, the validity of these theories is a must. To be precise, their validity is guaranteed if spatially extended objects are composed of objects that lack spatial extent. This is the sole nontrivial input and the only real mystery. Why are things that "occupy space" made of finite numbers of things that don't?
We have seen why. The creation of a world of formless particles is the final stage of an involution that has set the stage for the adventure of evolution.
Sri Aurobindo (1990). The Life Divine. Wilmot, WI : Lotus Light Publications.
Mohrhoff, U (2000). What quantum mechanics is trying to tell us, American Journal of Physics 68, 728-745.
Mohrhoff, U (2001). Beyond the cookie cutter paradigm. In Consciousness and its Transformation: Papers presented at the Second International Conference on Integral Psychology (edited by M. Cornelissen). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, pp. 333-345.
Mohrhoff, U (2002). Why the laws of physics are just so. Foundations of Physics 32, 1313-1324.
Mohrhoff, U (2004). Psychology all the way down. Paper presented at the National Conference on Indian Psychology, Yoga, and Consciousness, Pondicherry, 10-13 December, 2004.
Mohrhoff, U (2005). The Pondicherry interpretation of quantum mechanics: An overview, PRAMANA—Journal of Physics 64, 171-185.
Mohrhoff, U (2006). Quantum mechanics explained, http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0607005.
Mohrhoff, U (2006a). Is the end in sight for theoretical pseudophysics? In New Topics in Quantum Physics Research (edited by V. Krasnoholovets and F. Columbus). New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Mohrhoff, U (forthcoming). The physics and psychology of Brahman.
Mohrhoff, U (2006b). Particles, consciousness, volition: a Vedantic vision. Accepted for publication in Noetic Journal, http://cogprints.org/4479/.
Mohrhoff, U (2006c). The Quantum World, the Mind, and the Cookie Cutter Paradigm. Accepted for publication in Noetic Journal, http://cogprints.org/4480/.
Mohrhoff, U (under review). Defending the Pondicherry interpretation: A response to Shafiee, Jafar-Aghdami, and Golshani, http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0611055.
Presented at The Collective Yoga of Man: A World in Process, conference held at Auroville, India, January 12-14, 2007.
Information about this Article
Peer-review ratings (from 1 review, where a score of 100 represents the ‘average’ level):
Originality = 100.00, importance = 25.00, overall quality = 57.27
This Article was published on 18th January, 2007 at 03:25:09 and has been viewed 6223 times.
1 added 18th January, 2007 at 03:41:33
The long a (with a macron on top) showed up correctly in the preview. Here it shows up as a question mark. Apologies! Furthermore, this silly interface wants my apology to be at least 200 words long. So I’ll give you a beautiful quote from Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem “Savitri”:
When darkness deepens strangling the earth’s breast
And man’s corporeal mind is the only lamp,
As a thief’s in the night shall be the covert tread
Of one who steps unseen into his house.
A Voice ill-heard shall speak, the soul obey,
A Power into mind’s inner chamber steal,
A charm and sweetness open life’s closed doors
And beauty conquer the resisting world,
The Truth-Light capture Nature by surprise,
A stealth of God compel the heart to bliss
And earth grow unexpectedly divine.
In Matter shall be lit the spirit’s glow,
In body and body kindled the sacred birth;
Night shall awake to the anthem of the stars,
The days become a happy pilgrim march,
Our will a force of the Eternal’s power,
And thought the rays of a spiritual sun.
A few shall see what none yet understands;
God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep;
For man shall not know the coming till its hour
And belief shall be not till the work is done.
2 Peer review [reviewer #7116] added 20th January, 2007 at 14:51:15
I am afraid that this article falls in between two possible useful functions. It is neither an exposition of Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts on physics, nor does it present an integralist challenge to physics in a language that physicists are apt to respect. The larger the claim being made, the more the author needs to demonstrate that they are aware of possible objections. The bibliography section of this article would suggest just the opposite is true.
That said, I think the basic philosophical question raised here is valuable. Perhaps empiricism is tautological, or at least self-limiting. But I would caution the author not to equate empiricism with measurement. We can take the broader view of empiricism as the attempt to reconcile one’s personal experiences into a set of theories about reality (or, if you prefer, about the nature of illusion). Within that framework, measurement is only a special case. I am reminded, in fact, of the yogi’s own comment:
“They proved to me by convincing reasons that God does not exist; Afterwards I saw God, for he came and embraced me. And now what am I to believe- the reasoning of others or my own experience? Truth is what the soul has seen and experienced; the rest is appearance, prejudice and opinion.”
That sounds suspiciously like a defense of empiricism over rationalism, phrased in vedic terms. I think there is room here for some profitable exploration. But currently, this article seems to be a dismissive bulletin on quantum physics for the benefit of integral yoga practitioners, not written for any wider audience.
Originality: 4, Importance: 2, Overall quality: 3