Times of India | March 15, 2020
It is quite normal to believe that ‘cold’ is the opposite state of ‘hot’. But the state of coldness is merely the absence of heat. Similarly, darkness is the absence of light. Death is the absence of life. And foolishness is the absence of wisdom.
Many ideas can only be described by what they are not rather than by what they are. Dig a little deeper into Hindu philosophy and we find that rishis were in the same dilemna as us. They wanted to define what they intuitively knew as Brahman, the unchanging, permanent, highest reality. But how were they to explain something as vast and all-encompassing as that? The Upanishads thus described Brahman as neti, neti, neti. Translated, the statement means: neither this, not this, nor this.
The seers that described Brahman thus, also spoke of two fundamental characteristics of the world: shunyata (or nothingness) and maya (or illusion). Amazingly, researchers in quantum physics are now finding that our world is characterised by empty space. At the atomic and sub-atomic levels there is no rigidity. What we call ‘matter’ consists of fuzzy waves that can manifest as particles and switch back just as quickly. Energy and matter are interchangeable. The solidity of our world is illusory. The world is indeed characterised by shunyata and maya.
The classical physics establishment found these blurry notions of quantum theory a little difficult to digest. Newtonian physics thought of the world as composed of distinct objects, much like tennis balls or stone blocks. In this model, the universe is a giant machine of interlocking parts in which every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Unfortunately the Newtonian world breaks down at the subatomic level.
In the quantum world, everything seems to be an ocean of interconnected possibilities. Every particle is just a wave function and could be anywhere at anytime; it could even be at several places simultaneously. This hazy view of the world fits almost perfectly with what our sages said about Brahman, ‘It moves; it moves not; it is far; it is near; it is within this; it is outside this.’ In fact, many early quantum researchers such as Schroedinger, Heisenberg and Bohr had been exposed to Vedic philosophy.
For a moment though, let us turn from the quantum world to the universe of opinions and ideas. Does every idea need to have definition? Much like the wave-particle quantum world, isn’t it possible that ideas could be fuzzy, unpredictable and dynamic? Does every idea need to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong? Does it need to be tightly classified as right- or left-wing? Secular or communal? Capitalist or socialist? Liberal or conservative?
For example, Galileo was tried and condemned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633 for his view that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. Today we take his theories as fact. But Galileo’s views have been treated very differently with time; blasphemy at one time and obvious fact at another. Take another example. The notion of monarchy (the hereditary right to rule sanctioned by divine power) remained the norm until the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century most of the world discarded that idea. But even today, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Morocco, Oman or Qatar, a hereditary monarch is the accepted norm. In this instance the same idea is treated differently across geography. As the two examples show, space and time seem to have a substantial effect on ideas.
It was Einstein who fused the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional construct that he called spacetime. His relativity theory was the second great disruptor to the world of physics. In essence, an event that occurs at a given time for one observer could occur at a different time for another observer. When we look at the sun, we are actually looking at the sun as it had existed eight minutes ago because that’s the amount of time it takes light to travel from the sun to Earth.
Here again, if we go back to our myths, we have the story of King Kakudmi who travelled to meet the creator, Brahma. He thought he had been gone only for a few days but by the time he returned to Earth, 108 yugas (one yuga is around 4 million years) had flown by. Our myths were telling us intuitively what Einstein proved through science: that time is relative, not absolute. But couldn’t the relativity principle apply to ideas too?
Isn’t it possible that the entire framework by which we judge ideas, thoughts and opinions needs a revamp? Just like classical physicists were willing to accept that classical laws could not be applied at sub-atomic level, maybe today’s thinkers need to stop judging ideas by outdated constructs. If Einstein saw time as relative, couldn’t we look at ideas in a non-absolutist way. Isn’t it possible that two individuals may perceive the same idea differently? Isn’t it possible that the same individual may perceive a given idea differently over time? While we may hold our opinions dear to us, can’t we still view other opinions as equally legitimate?
And if a wave can behave as a particle and manifest spooky action over distance, why can’t one hold views that are seemingly opposed? One may want free markets yet state intervention; individual liberties yet social order; modern technology yet respect for tradition; democracy yet a strong state; or soft power yet strong armed forces. Why can’t one be rational yet revere one’s myths? Why can’t one believe in secularism while continuing to appreciate the Hindu ethos that allowed secularism to flourish? Why can’t one believe in the equality of genders while still appreciating chivalry? Why can’t one be Catholic yet gay? Why can’t one believe in Allah yet disregard the hijab? Why can’t one be Hindu without a caste? Why can’t one expect economic progress alongside environmental consciousness?
In recent times, physicists have discovered a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. In an entangled system, two seemingly separate particles can behave as an inseparable whole. One constituent cannot be fully described without considering the other. Theoretically, if one separates the two entangled particles, places them miles apart and then measures their characteristics, one would find that their velocity of spin would be identical but in opposite directions. They are quantum twins.
Maybe it’s time we looked at opposing ideas as quantum twins?