Category Archives: Articles and Essays

This category archives my articles and essays published in peer reviewed journals or semi-academic magazines. These publications span a wide range from physics to spirituality, touching on neuroscience and philosophy. You will find articles that appeared in the International Journal of Modern Physics, IEEE Tran. Neural Systems and Rehab. Engineering, The Philosopher (the journal of the Philosophical Society of England), Omega – Indian Journal of Science and Religion, Galilean Electrodynamics and so on.

Choices and Remorse

Remorse is the flipside of choice, and nostalgia the inevitable consequence of any relocation. I should know; I have relocated far too many times in my life — nothing comes for free.

In the sea of unsmiling faces trying to avoid eye-contact every morning, I miss the unexpected joy of a friendly face. Anonymity the price exacted and familiarity a willing sacrifice.

Searching for myself in the glaring lights of these metropolises, I miss the Milky Way and the stars hiding behind the artificial brightness of the skylines. Creature comforts at the expense of inner peace.

In the crystal clear waters at the postcard beaches of Cassis to Bintan to Phuket, I miss the angry waves of the choppy Arabian Sea and the boiling ferrous red beaches. The quest for a promised land at the cost of a paradise lost.

As my powerful sports sedan purrs away from the pack with near contemptuous ease, I miss my old Raleigh bicycle. Rich possession over simple pride.

While sipping the perfect wine matched to the incredibly minuscule helpings of incomprehensible delicacies, I miss a half-tea at Tarams and a mutton omelet at Indian Coffee House, and the friendship around it. Sophistication over small pleasures.

Watching National Geographic on large screens in all its HD glory, I miss the black and white contact prints from my dad’s old Agfa Click III. Technological perfection over emotional content.

And while writing this blog following as many rules of an alien grammar as I can remember, I mourn for the forgotten words of a mother tongue. Communication skills garnered at the cost of a language once owned.

It is not that I would have chosen differently if I had a chance do it all over again. It is the necessity of choice that is cruel. I wish I could choose everything, that I could live all possible lives, and experience all the agonies and all the ecstasies. I know it is silly, but I wish I never had to make a choice.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Once, I had some doubts about my sanity. After all, if you find yourself questioning the realness of reality, you have to wonder — is it reality that is unreal, or your sanity?

When I shared my concerns with this philosophically inclined friend of mine, she reassured me, “Sanity is overrated.” After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think she was right. Perhaps she didn’t go far enough — may be insanity is way underrated.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance defines insanity as the process of stepping outside mythos; mythos being the sum total of our combined knowledge passed down over the generations, the “commonsense” that precedes logic. If reality is not commonsense, what is? And doubting the realness of reality, almost by definition, is stepping outside the bounds of mythos. So it fits; my concerns were indeed well-founded.

But a good fit is no guarantee of the “rightness” of a hypothesis, as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance teaches us. Given enough time, we can always come up with a hypothesis that fits our observations. The process of hypothesizing from observations and experiences is like trying to guess the nature of an object from the shadow it projects. And a projection is precisely what our reality is — a projection of unknown forms and processes into our sensory and cognitive space, into our mythos and logos. But here, I may be pushing my own agenda rather than the theme of the book. But it does fit, doesn’t it? That is why I found myself muttering “Exactly!” over and over during my three reads of the book, and why I will read it many more times in the future. Let’s remind ourselves again, a good fit says nothing about the rightness of a hypothesis.

One such reasonable hypothesis of ours is about continuity We all assume the continuity of our personality or selfhood, which is a bit strange. I know that I am the same person I was twenty years ago — older certainly, wiser perhaps, but still the same person. But from science, I also know for a fact that every cell, every atom and every little fundamental particle in my body now is different from what constituted my body then. The potassium in the banana I ate two weeks ago is, for instance, what may be controlling the neuronal firing behind the thought process helping me write this essay. But it is still me, not the banana. We all assume this continuity because it fits.

Losing this continuity of personality is a scary thought. How scary it is is what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells you. As usual, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

In order to write a decent review of this book, it is necessary to summarize the “story” (which is believed to be based on the author’s life). Like most great works of literature, the story flows inwards and outwards. Outwardly, it is a story of a father and son (Pirsig and Chris) across the vast open spaces of America on a motorbike. Inwardly, it is a spiritual journey of self-discovery and surprising realizations. At an even deeper level, it is a journey towards possible enlightenment rediscovered.

The story begins with Pirsig and Chris riding with John and Sylvia. Right at the first unpretentious sentence, “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning,” it hit me that this was no ordinary book — the story is happening in the present tense. It is here and now — the underlying Zen-ness flows from the first short opening line and never stops.

The story slowly develops into the alienation between Chris and his father. The “father” comes across as a “selfish bastard,” as one of my friends observed.

The explanation for this disconnect between the father and the son soon follows. The narrator is not the father. He has the father’s body all right, but the real father had his personality erased through involuntary shock treatments. The doctor had reassured him that he had a new personality — not that he was a new personality.

The subtle difference makes ample sense once we realize that “he” and his “personality” are not two. And, to those of us how believe in the continuity of things like self-hood, it is a very scary statement. Personality is not something you have and wear, like a suit or a dress; it is what you are. If it can change, and you can get a new one, what does it say about what you think you are?

In Pirsig’s case, the annihilation of the old personality was not perfect. Besides, Chris was tagging along waiting for that personality to wake up. But awakening a personality is very different from waking a person up. It means waking up all the associated thoughts and ideas, insights and enlightenment. And wake up it does in this story — Phaedrus is back by the time we reach the last pages of the book.

What makes this book such a resounding success, (not merely in the market, but as an intellectual endeavor) are the notions and insights from Phaedrus that Pirsig manages to elicit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is nothing short of a new way of looking at reality. It is a battle for the minds, yours and mine, and those yet to come.

Such a battle was waged and won ages ago, and the victors were not gracious and noble enough to let the defeated worldview survive. They used a deadly dialectical knife and sliced up our worldview into an unwieldy duality. The right schism, according to Phaedrus and/or Pirsig, would have been a trinity.

The trinity managed to survive, albeit feebly, as a vanquished hero, timid and self-effacing. We see it in the Bible, for instance, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We see it Hinduism, as its three main gods, and in Vedanta, a line of thought I am more at home with, as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram — the Truth, ???, the Beauty. The reason why I don’t know what exactly Shivam means indicates how the battle for the future minds was won by the dualists.

It matters little that the experts in Vedanta and the Indian philosophical schools may know precisely what Shivam signifies. I for one, and the countless millions like me, will never know it with the clarity with which we know the other two terms — Sundaram and Satyam, beauty and truth, Maya and Brahman, aesthetics and metaphysics, mind and matter. The dualists have so completely annihilated the third entity that it does not even make sense now to ask what it is. They have won.

Phaedrus did ask the question, and found the answer to be Quality — something that sits in between mind and matter, between a romantic and a classical understanding of the world. Something that we have to and do experience before our intellect has a chance to process and analyze it. Zen.

However, in doing so, Phaedrus steps outside our mythos, and is hence insane.

If insanity is Zen, then my old friend was right. Sanity is way overrated.

Photo by MonsieurLui

The Philosophy of Special Relativity — A Comparison between Indian and Western Interpretations

Abstract: The Western philosophical phenomenalism could be treated as a kind of philosophical basis of the special theory of relativity. The perceptual limitations of our senses hold the key to the understanding of relativistic postulates. The specialness of the speed of light in our phenomenal space and time is more a matter of our perceptual apparatus, than an input postulate to the special theory of relativity. The author believes that the parallels among the phenomenological, Western spiritual and the Eastern Advaita interpretations of special relativity point to an exciting possibility of unifying the Eastern and Western schools of thought to some extent.

– Editor

Key Words: Relativity, Speed of Light, Phenomenalism, Advaita.


The philosophical basis of the special theory of relativity can be interpreted in terms of Western phenomenalism, which views space and time are considered perceptual and cognitive constructs created out our sensory inputs. From this perspective, the special status of light and its speed can be understood through a phenomenological study of our senses and the perceptual limitations to our phenomenal notions of space and time. A similar view is echoed in the BrahmanMaya distinction in Advaita. If we think of space and time as part of Maya, we can partly understand the importance that the speed of light in our reality, as enshrined in special relativity. The central role of light in our reality is highlighted in the Bible as well. These remarkable parallels among the phenomenological, Western spiritual and the Advaita interpretations of special relativity point to an exciting possibility of unifying the Eastern and Western schools of thought to a certain degree.

Special Relativity

Einstein unveiled his special theory of relativity2 a little over a century ago. In his theory, he showed that space and time were not absolute entities. They are entities relative to an observer. An observer’s space and time are related to those of another through the speed of light. For instance, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. In a moving system, time flows slower and space contracts in accordance with equations involving the speed of light. Light, therefore, enjoys a special status in our space and time. This specialness of light in our reality is indelibly enshrined in the special theory of relativity.

Where does this specialness come from? What is so special about light that its speed should figure in the basic structure of space and time and our reality? This question has remained unanswered for over 100 years. It also brings in the metaphysical aspects of space and time, which form the basis of what we perceive as reality.

Noumenal-Phenomenal and BrahmanMaya Distinctions

In the Advaita3 view of reality, what we perceive is merely an illusion-Maya. Advaita explicitly renounces the notion that the perceived reality is external or indeed real. It teaches us that the phenomenal universe, our conscious awareness of it, and our bodily being are all an illusion or Maya. They are not the true, absolute reality. The absolute reality existing in itself, independent of us and our experiences, is Brahman.

A similar view of reality is echoed in phenomenalism,4 which holds that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. In this view, all the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. Space and time are also cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, the reasons behind all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time have to be sought in the sensory processes that create our perception, whether we approach the issue from the Advaita or phenomenalism perspective.

This analysis of the importance of light in our reality naturally brings in the metaphysical aspects of space and time. In Kant’s view,5 space and time are pure forms of intuition. They do not arise from our experience because our experiences presuppose the existence of space and time. Thus, we can represent space and time in the absence of objects, but we cannot represent objects in the absence of space and time.

Kant’s middle-ground has the advantage of reconciling the views of Newton and Leibniz. It can agree with Newton’s view6 that space is absolute and real for phenomenal objects open to scientific investigation. It can also sit well with Leibniz’s view7 that space is not absolute and has an existence only in relation to objects, by highlighting their relational nature, not among objects in themselves (noumenal objects), but between observers and objects.

We can roughly equate the noumenal objects to forms in Brahman and our perception of them to Maya. In this article, we will use the terms “noumenal reality,” “absolute reality,” or “physical reality” interchangeably to describe the collection of noumenal objects, their properties and interactions, which are thought to be the underlying causes of our perception. Similarly, we will “phenomenal reality,” “perceived or sensed reality,” and “perceptual reality” to signify our reality as we perceive it.

As with Brahman causing Maya, we assume that the phenomenal notions of space and time arise from noumenal causes8 through our sensory and cognitive processes. Note that this causality assumption is ad-hoc; there is no a priori reason for phenomenal reality to have a cause, nor is causation a necessary feature of the noumenal reality. Despite this difficulty, we proceed from a naive model for the noumenal reality and show that, through the process of perception, we can “derive” a phenomenal reality that obeys the special theory of relativity.

This attempt to go from the phenomena (space and time) to the essence of what we experience (a model for noumenal reality) is roughly in line with Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology.9 The deviation is that we are more interested in the manifestations of the model in the phenomenal reality itself rather than the validity of the model for the essence. Through this study, we show that the specialness of the speed of light in our phenomenal space and time is a consequence of our perceptual apparatus. It doesn’t have to be an input postulate to the special theory of relativity.

Perception and Phenomenal Reality

The properties we ascribe to space and time (such as the specialness of the speed of light) can only be a part of our perceived reality or Maya, in Advaita, not of the underlying absolute reality, Brahman. If we think of space and time as aspects of our perceived reality arising from an unknowable Brahman through our sensory and cognitive processes, we can find an explanation for the special distinction of the speed of light in the process and mechanism of our sensing. Our thesis is that the reason for the specialness of light in our phenomenal notions of space and time is hidden in the process of our perception.

We, therefore, study how the noumenal objects around us generate our sensory signals, and how we construct our phenomenal reality out of these signals in our brains. The first part is already troublesome because noumenal objects, by definition, have no properties or interactions that we can study or understand.

These features of the noumenal reality are identical to the notion of Brahman in Advaita, which highlights that the ultimate truth is Brahman, the one beyond time, space and causation. Brahman is the material cause of the universe, but it transcends the cosmos. It transcends time; it exists in the past, present and future. It transcends space; it has no beginning, middle and end. It even transcends causality. For that reason, Brahman is incomprehensible to the human mind. The way it manifests to us is through our sensory and cognitive processes. This manifestation is Maya, the illusion, which, in the phenomenalistic parlance, corresponds to the phenomenal reality.

For our purpose in this article, we describe our sensory and cognitive process and the creation of the phenomenal reality or Maya10 as follows. It starts with the noumenal objects (or forms in Brahman), which generate the inputs to our senses. Our senses then process the signals and relay the processed electric data corresponding to them to our brain. The brain creates a cognitive model, a representation of the sensory inputs, and presents it to our conscious awareness as reality, which is our phenomenal world or Maya.

This description of how the phenomenal reality created ushers in a tricky philosophical question. Who or what creates the phenomenal reality and where? It is not created by our senses, brain and mind because these are all objects or forms in the phenomenal reality. The phenomenal reality cannot create itself. It cannot be that the noumenal reality creates the phenomenal reality because, in that case, it would be inaccurate to assert the cognitive inaccessibility to the noumenal world.

This philosophical trouble is identical in Advaita as well. Our senses, brain and mind cannot create Maya, because they are all part of Maya. If Brahman created Maya, it would have to be just as real. This philosophical quandary can be circumvented in the following way. We assume that all events and objects in Maya have a cause or form in Brahman or in the noumenal world. Thus, we postulate that our senses, mind and body all have some (unknown) forms in Brahman (or in the noumenal world), and these forms create Maya in our conscious awareness, ignoring the fact that our consciousness itself is an illusory manifestation in the phenomenal world. This inconsistency is not material to our exploration into the nature of space and time because we are seeking the reason for the specialness of light in the sensory process rather than at the level of consciousness.

Space and time together form what physics considers the basis of reality. Space makes up our visual reality precisely as sounds make up our auditory world. Just as sounds are a perceptual experience rather than a fundamental property of physical reality, space also is an experience, or a cognitive representation of the visual inputs, not a fundamental aspect of Brahman or the noumenal reality. The phenomenal reality thus created is Maya. The Maya events are an imperfect or distorted representation of the corresponding Brahman events. Since Brahman is a superset of Maya (or, equivalently, our senses are potentially incapable of sensing all aspects of the noumenal reality), not all objects and events in Brahman create a projection in Maya. Our perception (or Maya) is thus limited because of the sense modality and its speed, which form the focus of our investigation in this article.

In summary, it can be argued that the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism is an exact parallel to the BrahmanMaya distinction in Advaita if we think of our perceived reality (or Maya) as arising from sensory and cognitive processes.

Sensing Space and Time, and the Role of Light

The phenomenal notions of space and time together form what physics considers the basis of reality. Since we take the position that space and time are the end results of our sensory perception, we can understand some of the limitations in our Maya by studying the limitations in our senses themselves.

At a fundamental level, how do our senses work? Our sense of sight operates using light, and the fundamental interaction involved in sight falls in the electromagnetic (EM) category because light (or photon) is the intermediary of EM interactions.11

The exclusivity of EM interaction is not limited to our long-range sense of sight; all the short-range senses (touch, taste, smell and hearing) are also EM in nature. In physics, the fundamental interactions are modeled as fields with gauge bosons.12 In quantum electrodynamics13 (the quantum field theory of EM interactions), photon (or light) is the gauge boson mediating EM interactions. Electromagnetic interactions are responsible for all our sensory inputs. To understand the limitations of our perception of space, we need not highlight the EM nature of all our senses. Space is, by and large, the result of our sight sense. But it is worthwhile to keep in mind that we would have no sensing, and indeed no reality, in the absence of EM interactions.

Like our senses, all our technological extensions to our senses (such as radio telescopes, electron microscopes, red shift measurements and even gravitational lensing) use EM interactions exclusively to measure our universe. Thus, we cannot escape the basic constraints of our perception even when we use modern instruments. The Hubble telescope may see a billion light years farther than our naked eyes, but what it sees is still a billion years older than what our eyes see. Our phenomenal reality, whether built upon direct sensory inputs or technologically enhanced, is made up of a subset of EM particles and interactions only. What we perceive as reality is a subset of forms and events in the noumenal world corresponding to EM interactions, filtered through our sensory and cognitive processes. In the Advaita parlance, Maya can be thought of as a projection of Brahman through EM interactions into our sensory and cognitive space, quite probably an imperfect projection.

The exclusivity of EM interactions in our perceived reality is not always appreciated, mainly because of a misconception that we can sense gravity directly. This confusion arises because our bodies are subject to gravity. There is a fine distinction between “being subject to” and “being able to sense” gravitational force. The gravity sensing in our ears measures the effect of gravity on EM matter. In the absence of EM interaction, it is impossible to sense gravity, or anything else for that matter.

This assertion that there is no sensing in the absence of EM interactions brings us to the next philosophical hurdle. One can always argue that, in the absence of EM interaction, there is no matter to sense. This argument is tantamount to insisting that the noumenal world consists of only those forms and events that give rise to EM interaction in our phenomenal perception. In other words, it is the same as insisting that Brahman is made up of only EM interactions. What is lacking in the absence of EM interaction is only our phenomenal reality. In the Advaita notion, in the absence of sensing, Maya does not exist. The absolute reality or Brahman, however, is independent of our sensing it. Again, we see that the Eastern and Western views on reality we explored in this article are remarkably similar.

The Speed of Light

Knowing that our space-time is a representation of the light waves our eyes receive, we can immediately see that light is indeed special in our reality. In our view, sensory perception leads to our brain’s representation that we call reality, or Maya. Any limitation in this chain of sensing leads to a corresponding limitation in our phenomenal reality.

One limitation in the chain from senses to perception is the finite speed of photon, which is the gauge boson of our senses. The finite speed of the sense modality influences and distorts our perception of motion, space and time. Because these distortions are perceived as a part of our reality itself, the root cause of the distortion becomes a fundamental property of our reality. This is how the speed of light becomes such an important constant in our space-time.

The importance of the speed of light, however, is respected only in our phenomenal Maya. Other modes of perception have other speeds the figure as the fundamental constant in their space-like perception. The reality sensed through echolocation, for instance, has the speed of sound as a fundamental property. In fact, it is fairly simple to establish14 that echolocation results in a perception of motion that obeys something very similar to special relativity with the speed of light replaced with that of sound.

Theories beyond Sensory Limits

The basis of physics is the world view called scientific realism, which is not only at the core of sciences but is our natural way of looking at the world as well. Scientific realism, and hence physics, assume an independently existing external world, whose structures are knowable through scientific investigations. To the extent observations are based on perception, the philosophical stance of scientific realism, as it is practiced today, can be thought of as a trust in our perceived reality, and as an assumption that it is this reality that needs to be explored in science.

Physics extends its reach beyond perception or Maya through the rational element of pure theory. Most of physics works in this “extended” intellectual reality, with concepts such as fields, forces, light rays, atoms, particles, etc., the existence of which is insisted upon through the metaphysical commitment implied in scientific realism. However, it does not claim that the rational extensions are the noumenal causes or Brahman giving raise to our phenomenal perception.

Scientific realism has helped physics tremendously, with all its classical theories. However, scientific realism and the trust in our perception of reality should apply only within the useful ranges of our senses. Within the ranges of our sensory perceptions, we have fairly intuitive physics. An example of an intuitive picture is Newtonian mechanics that describe “normal” objects moving around at “normal” speeds.

When we get closer to the edges of our sensory modalities, we have to modify our sciences to describe the reality as we sense it. These modifications lead to different, and possibly incompatible, theories. When we ascribe the natural limitations of our senses and the consequent limitations of our perception (and therefore observations) to the fundamental nature of reality itself, we end up introducing complications in our physical laws. Depending on which limitations we are incorporating into the theory (e.g., small size, large speeds etc.), we may end up with theories that are incompatible with each other.

Our argument is that some of these complications (and, hopefully, incompatibilities) can be avoided if we address the sensory limitations directly. For instance, we can study the consequence of the fact that our senses operate at the speed of light as follows. We can model Brahman (the noumenal reality) as obeying classical mechanics, and work out what kind of Maya (phenomenal reality) we will experience through the chain of sensing.

The modeling of the noumenal world (as obeying classical mechanics), of course, has shaky philosophical foundations. But the phenomenal reality predicted from this model is remarkably close to the reality we do perceive. Starting from this simple model, it can be easily shown our perception of motion at high speeds obeys special relativity.

The effects due to the finite speed of light are well known in physics. We know, for instance, that what we see happening in distant stars and galaxies now actually took place quite awhile ago. A more “advanced” effect due to the light travel time15 is the way we perceive motion at high speeds, which is the basis of special relativity. In fact, many astrophysical phenomena can be understood16 in terms of light travel time effects. Because our sense modality is based on light, our sensed picture of motion has the speed of light appearing naturally in the equations describing it. So the importance of the speed of light in our space-time (as described in special relativity) is due to the fact that our reality is Maya created based on light inputs.


Almost all branches of philosophy grapple with this distinction between the phenomenal and the absolute realities to some extent. Advaita Vedanta holds the unrealness of the phenomenal reality as the basis of their world view. In this article, we showed that the views in phenomenalism can be thought of as a restatement of the Advaita postulates.

When such a spiritual or philosophical insight makes its way into science, great advances in our understanding can be expected. This convergence of philosophy (or even spirituality) and science is beginning to take place, most notably in neuroscience, which views reality as a creation of our brain, echoing the notion of Maya.

Science gives a false impression that we can get arbitrarily close to the underlying physical causes through the process of scientific investigation and rational theorization. An example of such theorization can be found in our sensation of hearing. The experience or the sensation of sound is an incredibly distant representation of the physical cause–namely air pressure waves. We are aware of the physical cause because we have a more powerful sight sense. So it would seem that we can indeed go from Maya (sound) to the underlying causes (air pressure waves).

However, it is a fallacy to assume that the physical cause (the air pressure waves) is Brahman. Air pressure waves are still a part of our perception; they are part of the intellectual picture we have come to accept. This intellectual picture is an extension of our visual reality, based on our trust in the visual reality. It is still a part of Maya.

The new extension of reality proposed in this article, again an intellectual extension, is an educated guess. We guess a model for the absolute reality, or Brahman, and predict what the consequent perceived reality should be, working forward through the chain of sensing and creating Maya. If the predicted perception is a good match with the Maya we do experience, then the guesswork for Brahman is taken to be a fairly accurate working model. The consistency between the predicted perception and what we do perceive is the only validation of the model for the nature of the absolute reality. Furthermore, the guess is only one plausible model for the absolute reality; there may be different such “solutions” to the absolute reality all of which end up giving us our perceived reality.

It is a mistake to think of the qualities of our subjective experience of sound as the properties of the underlying physical process. In an exact parallel, it is a fallacy to assume that the subjective experience of space and time is the fundamental property of the world we live in. The space-time continuum, as we see it or feel it, is only a partial and incomplete representation of the unknowable Brahman. If we are willing to model the unknowable Brahman as obeying classical mechanics, we can indeed derive the properties of our perceived reality (such as time dilation, length contraction, light speed ceiling and so on in special relativity). By proposing this model for the noumenal world, we are not suggesting that all the effects of special relativity are mere perceptual artifacts. We are merely reiterating a known fact that space and time themselves cannot be anything but perceptual constructs. Thus their properties are manifestations of the process of perception.

When we consider processes close to or beyond our sensor limits, the manifestations of our perceptual and cognitive constraints become significant. Therefore, when it comes to the physics that describes such processes, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in sensing them. The universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photosensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely light), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey special relativity. They do, but space and time are only a part of our perception of an unknowable reality—a perception limited by the speed of light.

The central role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of western spiritual philosophy as well. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the notion that “the earth was without form, and void'” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.” Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens.” The role of light in taking us from the void (the nothingness) to a reality was understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our advances in knowledge? Whether we use old Eastern Advaita views or their Western counterparts, we can interpret the philosophical stance behind special relativity as hidden in the distinction between our phenomenal reality and its unknowable physical causes.


  1. Dr. Manoj Thulasidas graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, in 1987. He studied fundamental particles and interactions at the CLEO collaboration at Cornell University during 1990-1992. After receiving his PhD in 1993, he moved to Marseilles, France and continued his research with the ALEPH collaboration at CERN, Geneva. During his ten-year career as a research scientist in the field of High energy physics, he co-authored over 200 publications.
  2. Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper. (On The Electrodynamics Of Moving Bodies). Annalen der Physik, 17, 891-921.
  3. Radhakrishnan, S. & Moore, C. A. (1957). Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY.
  4. Chisolm, R. (1948). The Problem of Empiricism. The Journal of Philosophy, 45, 512-517.
  5. Allison, H. (2004). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. Yale University Press.
  6. Rynasiewicz, R. (1995). By Their Properties, Causes and Effects: Newton’s Scholium on Time, Space, Place and Motion. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 26, 133-153, 295-321.
  7. Calkins, M. W. (1897). Kant’s Conception of the Leibniz Space and Time Doctrine. The Philosophical Review, 6 (4), 356-369.
  8. Janaway, C., ed. (1999). The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer. Cambridge University Press.
  9. Schmitt, R. (1959). Husserl’s Transcendental-Phenomenological Reduction. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 20 (2), 238-245.
  10. Thulasidas, M. (2007). The Unreal Universe. Asian Books, Singapore.
  11. Electromagnetic (EM) interaction is one of the four kinds of interactions in the Standard Model (Griffths, 1987) of particle physics. It is the interaction between charged bodies. Despite the EM repulsion between them, however, the protons stay confined within the nucleus because of the strong interaction, whose magnitude is much bigger than that of EM interactions. The other two interactions are termed the weak interaction and the gravitational interaction.
  12. In quantum field theory, every fundamental interaction consists of emitting a particle and absorbing it in an instant. These so-called virtual particles emitted and absorbed are known as the gauge bosons that mediate the interactions.
  13. Feynman, R. (1985). Quantum Electrodynamics. Addison Wesley.
  14. Thulasidas, M. (2007). The Unreal Universe. Asian Books, Singapore.
  15. Rees, M. (1966). Appearance of Relativistically Expanding Radio Sources. Nature, 211, 468-470.
  16. Thulasidas, M. (2007a). Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms? International Journal of Modern Physics D, 16 (6), 983-1000.

Perception, Physics and the Role of Light in Philosophy

Reality, as we sense it, is not quite real. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This unreality is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay.

Even the sun that we know so well is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This fact does not seem to present particularly grave epistemological problems – if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We only have to ‘correct’ for the distortions in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see. The same phenomenon in seeing has a lesser-known manifestation in the way we perceive moving objects. Some heavenly bodies appear as though they are moving several times the speed of light, whereas their ‘real’ speed must be a lot less than that.

What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate in the same kind of way as we can to correct for the delay in observation of the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot calculate how fast or even in what direction it is ‘really’ moving without first having to make certain further assumptions.

Einstein chose to resolve the problem by treating perception as distorted and inventing new fundamental properties in the arena of physics – in the description of space and time. One core idea of the Special Theory of Relativity is that the human notion of an orderly sequence of events in time needs to be abandoned. In fact, since it takes time for light from an event at a distant place to reach us, and for us to become aware of it, the concept of ‘now’ no longer makes any sense, for example, when we speak of a sunspot appearing on the surface of the sun just at the moment that the astronomer was trying to photograph it. Simultaneity is relative.

Einstein instead redefined simultaneity by using the instants in time we detect the event. Detection, as he defined it, involves a round-trip travel of light similar to radar detection. We send out a signal travelling at the speed of light, and wait for the reflection. If the reflected pulse from two events reaches us at the same instant, then they are simultaneous. But another way of looking at it is simply to call two events ‘simultaneous’ if the light from them reaches us at the same instant. In other words, we can use the light generated by the objects under observation rather than sending signals to them and looking at the reflection.

This difference may sound like a hair-splitting technicality, but it does make an enormous difference to the predictions we can make. Einstein’s choice results in a mathematical picture that has many desirable properties, including that of making further theoretical development more elegant. But then, Einstein believed, as a matter of faith it would seem, that the rules governing the universe must be ‘elegant.’ However, the other approach has an advantage when it comes to describing objects in motion. Because, of course, we don’t use radar to see the stars in motion; we merely sense the light (or other radiation) coming from them. Yet using this kind of sensory paradigm, rather than ‘radar-like detection,’ to describe the universe results in an uglier mathematical picture. Einstein would not approve!

The mathematical difference spawns different philosophical stances, which in turn percolate to the understanding of our physical picture of reality. As an illustration, suppose we observe, through a radio telescope, two objects in the sky, with roughly the same shape, size and properties. The only thing we know for sure is that the radio waves from these two different points in the sky reach us at the same instant in time. We can only guess when the waves started their journeys.

If we assume (as we routinely do) that the waves started the journey roughly at the same instant in time, we end up with a picture of two ‘real’ symmetric lobes more or less the way see them. But there is another, different possibility and that is that the waves originated from the same object (which is in motion) at two different instants in time, reaching the telescope at the same instant. This possibility would additionally explain some spectral and temporal properties of such symmetric radio sources. So which of these two pictures should we take as real? Two symmetric objects as we see them or one object moving in such a way as to give us that impression? Does it really matter which one is ‘real’? Does ‘real’ mean anything in this context?

Special Relativity gives an unambiguous answer to this question. The mathematics rules out the possibility of a single object moving in such a fashion as to mimic two objects. Essentially, what we see is what is out there. Yet, if we define events by what we perceive, the only philosophical stance that makes sense is the one that disconnects the sensed reality from the causes lying behind what is being sensed.

This disconnect is not uncommon in philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality of ‘things-in-the-world’ as we sense it. The underlying reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

Yet there is a chasm between the views of philosophy and modern physics. Not for nothing did the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wonder, in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, why the contribution from philosophy to physics had been so surprisingly small. Perhaps it is because physics has yet to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion – which is probably what Goethe meant when he said, ‘Optical illusion is optical truth.’

The distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is ‘actually the case.’ In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external, as shown in the figure below.


In this picture, the black arrow represents the process of creating knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept. While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, alternative view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs, as illustrated below.


In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In the illustration, the first arrow represents the process of sensing, and the second arrow represents the cognitive and logical reasoning steps. In order to apply this view of reality and knowledge, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is. One possible candidate for the absolute reality is Newtonian mechanics, which gives a reasonable prediction for our perceived reality.

To summarize, when we try to handle the distortions due to perception, we have two options, or two possible philosophical stances. One is to accept the distortions as part of our space and time, as Special Relativity does. The other option is to assume that there is a ‘higher’ reality distinct from our sensed reality, whose properties we can only conjecture. In other words, one option is to live with the distortion, while the other is to propose educated guesses for the higher reality. Neither of these choices is particularly attractive. But the guessing path is similar to the view accepted in phenomenalism. It also leads naturally to how reality is viewed in cognitive neuroscience, which studies the biological mechanisms behind cognition.

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that ‘the earth was without form, and void’ until God caused light to be, by saying ‘Let there be light.’

The Koran also says, ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,’ which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: ‘Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.’ The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

There are parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction of Kant and the phenomenalists later, and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita. Wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is still unable to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

In fact, as we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are discovering hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. Yet, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other if all knowledge is subjective? If knowledge is merely the cognitive representation of our experiences? But then, it is the modern fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Instead, recognising and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavour may be the essential prerequisite for the next stage in developing our collective wisdom.

Box: Einstein’s TrainOne of Einstein’s famous thought experiments illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by simultaneous events. It describes a high-speed train rushing along a straight track past a small station as a man stands on the station platform watching it speed by. To his amazement, as the train passes him, two lightening bolts strike the track next to either end of the train! (Conveniently, for later investigators, they leave burn marks both on the train and on the ground.)

To the man, it seems that the two lightening bolts strike at exactly the same moment. Later, the marks on the ground by the train track reveal that the spots where the lightening struck were exactly equidistant from him. Since then the lightening bolts travelled the same distance towards him, and since they appeared to the man to happen at exactly the same moment, he has no reason not to conclude that the lightening bolts struck at exactly the same moment. They were simultaneous.

However, suppose a little later, the man meets a lady passenger who happened to be sitting in the buffet car, exactly at the centre of the train, and looking out of the window at the time the lightening bolts struck. This passenger tells him that she saw the first lightening bolt hit the ground near the engine at the front of the train slightly ahead of when the second one hit the ground next to the luggage car at the rear of the train.

The effect has nothing to do with the distance the light had to travel, as both the woman and the man were equidistant between the two points that the lightening hit. Yet they observed the sequence of events quite differently.

This disagreement of the timing of the events is inevitable, Einstein says, as the woman is in effect moving towards the point where the flash of lightening hit near the engine -and away from the point where the flash of lightening hit next to the luggage car. In the tiny amount of time it takes for the light rays to reach the lady, because the train moves, the distance the first flash must travel to her shrinks, and the distance the second flash must travel grows.

This fact may not be noticed in the case of trains and aeroplanes, but when it comes to cosmological distances, simultaneity really doesn’t make any sense. For instance, the explosion of two distant supernovae, seen as simultaneous from our vantage point on the earth, will appear to occur in different time combinations from other perspectives.

In Relativity: The Special and General Theory (1920), Einstein put it this way:

‘Every reference-body (co-ordinate system) has its own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in a statement of the time of an event.’