Tag Archives: Philosophy

The God Delusion

I am an atheist. So I agree completely with all the arguments of The God Delusion. As a review of the book, that statement should be the end of it. But somehow the book gave me a strange feeling of dissatisfaction. You see, you may believe in God. Or you may not. Or you may actively believe that there is no God. I fall in this the last category. But I still know that it is only my belief, and that thought fills me with a humility that I feel Dawkins lacks.

Now, it is one thing to say that the concept of God is inconsistent with the worldview you have developed, perhaps with the help of science. The concept is indeed very inconsistent with my own personal worldview, which is why I am an atheist. But it is quite a different matter to discount the concept as a delusion. I believe that our knowledge is incomplete. And that there is plenty of room for a possible God to hide beyond the realms of our current knowledge. Does it mean that we should call our ignorance God and kneel before it? I don’t think so, but if somebody does, that is their prerogative.

You see, it is all a question of what your worldview is. And how much rigor and consistency you demand of it. So, what is a worldview? In my opinion, a worldview is the extension of your knowledge. We all have a certain amount of knowledge. We also have a lot of sensory data that comes in every moment that we have to process. We do most of this processing automatically, without conscious effort. But some of the higher level data and information that we encounter merit a closer analysis. How do we do it, given that we may not know much about it? We use our commonsense, our pre-conceived notions, the value systems our parents and teachers left in us and so on. One of these things that we use, or perhaps the totality of these things, is our worldview.

Let’s take an example. Douglas Adams tells us that dolphins are actually smarter than us and have regular inter-galactic communication. Well, we have no way of refuting this claim (which, of course, is only a joke). But our worldview tells us that it is unlikely to be true. And we don’t believe it — as though we know it is not true.

Another example, one that Bertram Russell once cited. Scripture tells us that faith can move mountains. Some people believe it. Science tells us that a nuclear blast can, well, move mountains. Some people believe that too. Note that most people haven’t directly witnessed either. But even for those who believe in the faith-mountain connection, nuclear energy moving mountains is far more plausible a belief. It is just a lot more consistent with our current worldview.

Now, just because God is a delusion according to Dawkins’s worldview (or mine, for that matter), should you buy it? Not unless it is inconsistent with yours as well. Worldviews are hard to change. So are our stances vis-a-vis God and science, when seen as belief-systems — as the movie Contact vividly illustrates. If you missed it, you should watch it. Repeatedly, if needed. It is a good movie anyway.

It is true what they say about a scientific worldview being inconsistent with any sensible notion of a god. But worldviews are a funny thing. Nothing prevents you from tolerating inconsistencies in your worldview. Although Dawkins goes to some length to absolve Einstein of this lack of consistency, the conventional wisdom is that he did believe in God. The truth of the matter is that our collective knowledge (even after adding Einstein’s massive contribution) is limited. There really is plenty of room beyond its limits for God (or eight million gods, if I were to believe my parents), as I will try to show in my next post.

That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Once we admit that there are limits to our knowledge, and to what is knowable, we will soon find ourselves staring at other delusions. What is the point it discounting a God delusion, while embracing a space-delusion? In a universe that is unreal, everything is a delusion, not just God. I know, you think it is just my sanity that is unreal, but I may convince you otherwise. In another post.

Helen Keller

The story of Helen Keller is the story of the dark reality that traps you in the absence of your senses. It is also an illustration of the role of language in breaking out of that darkness. Born a healthy child on June 27, 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller was a perfectly happy baby — until the tender age of 19 months, when she was stricken with a strange illness that “they called acute congestion of the stomach and brain.” The terrible illness left her blind and deaf — “closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby,” as she would later write in her autobiography.

Disconnected from the physical world, Helen was trapped in her dark, silent reality (or the lack thereof). She did not even have thoughts or words in her mind, because the tragedy happened before she started talking. She could not learn from her parents like normal children, because she was blind and deaf. There were no special schools at that time for disadvantaged children like her. When she was seven, Helen’s parents contacted Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was also an educator of the deaf. Through his help, they found Anne Sullivan to tutor Helen. Anne Sullivan had special methods of making hand signs to spell out objects. Sadly, none of these tricks worked with Helen for a few frustrating months. She could not make the connection between the hand movements and the objects. It looked as though Helen would be doomed to her dark reality for ever. Here is how she made the connection and broke free from darkness. (This block quote is from Helen Keller’s autobiography “The Story of my Life,” which was ffirst published in 1903 and is in the public domain according to the US copyright laws.)

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

The mystery of language is at the genesis of reality; it is what sweeps away the dark barriers standing between us and our conscious awareness of reality. It took Helen Keller out of nothingness into a world of reality, and if it is not the Word in “The Word was God,” I will never know what is.

Photo by The Library of Congress

What is the Word?

I know very little about religion. Although my smart-ass comments may appear, once in a while, as profound, I’m really ignorant in matters of theology and religion. After all, I have no formal background in these fields that scholars spend their whole life exploring. So, forgive me if this post comes across as pontificating on something I’d better leave to the scholars; but I cannot help wondering what the Word is. I mean, when they say, “In the beginning, there was the Word,” what exactly is the word?

The verse, John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, is again something people have spent much time researching and pondering over. My cursory search unearthed a couple of lines of thought. These lines were mostly concerned with the accuracy of the translation of the verse from Greek, which was complicated by the lack of “the” or “a” articles in the original language. So the verse could be translated as, for instance, “The Word was the God,” consistent with the monotheist notion of Christianity. Or it could be “The Word was a god,” giving quite a different, perhaps pagan, coloration to the issue.

For obvious (atheistic) reasons, I am not interested in this aspect of the verse, nor in these lines of thought. I found another translation, allegedly more literal, that went like, “When the beginning began, the Word was already there.” This suited my purpose better. Still, what exactly was this Word?

My understanding of this statement is as follows. In the philosophy of language, it can be argued that life, universe and everything exists in language, in thoughts, in your brain. The term “language” as defined here doesn’t just mean the communication tool, it also encompasses your thoughts and ideas. It is the vehicle of your thought process. In the absence of language, you have no thoughts, only animal instincts. You have no conscious awareness, only unthinking reactions to your surroundings. You don’t know that you exist, you don’t know that the world exists. The nothingness that engulfs you in the absence of a language is most poignantly depicted in the inspiring story of Helen Keller, coming up in a few days.

In my view, the “Word” that was there in the beginning is language, the ensemble of your thoughts and ideas, and the thought-processing mechanism. It creates our reality. Before we had language, we had no reality; we had nothing. And John 1:1 is a statement of intention to attribute this world of reality, or the opposite of nothingness, created by language to God. And, to me, this statement is the clearest proof that the saint knew how god was born. Obviously, I am rushing in where angels fear to tread. This view of mine will not be embraced (or even tolerated) by anybody who believes in the theological meaning attached to this text of scripture. And to them, I humbly point out that it is just a view, a mere mortal’s view at that! It probably only goes to show that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose!”

Change the Facts

There is beauty in truth, and truth in beauty. Where does this link between truth and beauty come from? Of course, beauty is subjective, and truth is objective — or so we are told. It may be that we have evolved in accordance with the beautiful Darwinian principles to see perfection in absolute truth.

The beauty and perfection I’m thinking about are of a different kind — those of ideas and concepts. At times, you may get an idea so perfect and beautiful that you know it has to be true. This conviction of truth arising from beauty may be what made Einstein declare:

But this conviction about the veracity of a theory based on its perfection is hardly enough. Einstein’s genius really is in his philosophical tenacity, his willingness to push the idea beyond what is considered logical.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you are in a cruising airplane. If you close the windows and somehow block out the engine noise, it will be impossible for you to tell whether you are moving or not. This inability, when translated to physics jargon, becomes a principle stating, “Physical laws are independent of the state of motion of the experimental system.”

The physical laws Einstein chose to look at were Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, which had the speed of light appearing in them. For them to be independent of (or covariant with, to be more precise) motion, Einstein postulated that the speed of light had to be a constant regardless of whether you were going toward it or away from it.

Now, I don’t know if you find that postulate particularly beautiful. But Einstein did, and decided to push it through all its illogical consequences. For it to be true, space has to contract and time had to dilate, and nothing could go faster than light. Einstein said, well, so be it. That is the philosophical conviction and tenacity that I wanted to talk about — the kind that gave us Special Relativity about a one hundred years ago.

Want to get to General Relativity from here? Simple, just find another beautiful truth. Here is one… If you have gone to Magic Mountain, you would know that you are weightless during a free fall (best tried on an empty stomach). Free fall is acceleration at 9.8 m/s/s (or 32 ft/s/s), and it nullifies gravity. So gravity is the same as acceleration — voila, another beautiful principle.

World line of airplanesIn order to make use of this principle, Einstein perhaps thought of it in pictures. What does acceleration mean? It is how fast the speed of something is changing. And what is speed? Think of something moving in a straight line — our cruising airplane, for instance, and call the line of flight the X-axis. We can visualize its speed by thinking of a time T-axis at right angles with the X-axis so that at time = 0, the airplane is at x = 0. At time t, it is at a point x = v.t, if it is moving with a speed v. So a line in the X-T plane (called the world line) represents the motion of the airplane. A faster airplane would have a shallower world line. An accelerating airplane, therefore, will have a curved world line, running from the slow world line to the fast one.

So acceleration is curvature in space-time. And so is gravity, being nothing but acceleration. (I can see my physicist friends cringe a bit, but it is essentially true — just that you straighten the world-line calling it a geodesic and attribute the curvature to space-time instead.)

The exact nature of the curvature and how to compute it, though beautiful in their own right, are mere details, as Einstein himself would have put it. After all, he wanted to know God’s thoughts, not the details.

Of Dreams and Memories

I recently watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), which describes the tragic plight of the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a severe stroke and became “locked-in.” During my research days, I had worked a bit on rehabilitation systems for such locked-in patients, who have normal or near-normal cognitive activities but no motor control. In other words, their fully functional minds are locked in a useless body that affords them no means of communication with the external world. It is the solitary confinement of the highest order.

Locked-in condition is one of my secret fears; not so much for myself, but that someone close to me might have to go through it. My father suffered a stroke and was comatose for a month before he passed away, and I will always wonder whether he was locked-in. Did he feel pain and fear? So I Googled a bit to find out if stroke patients were conscious inside. I couldn’t find anything definitive. Then it occurred to me that perhaps these stroke patients were conscious, but didn’t remember it later on.

That thought brought me to one of my philosophical musings. What does it mean to say that something happened if you cannot remember it? Let’s say you had to go through a lot of pain for whatever reason. But you don’t remember it later. Did you really suffer? It is like a dream that you cannot remember. Did you really dream it?

Memory is an essential ingredient of reality, and of existence — which is probably why they can sell so many digital cameras and camcorders. When memories of good times fade in our busy minds, perhaps we feel bits of our existence melting away. So we take thousands of pictures and videos that we are too busy to look at later on.

But I wonder. When I die, my memories will die with me. Sure, those who are close to me will remember me for a while, but the memories that I hold on to right now, the things I have seen and experienced, will all disappear — like an uncertain dream that someone (perhaps a butterfly) dreamt and forgot. So what does it mean to say that I exist? Isn’t it all a dream?

The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham

May be it is only my tendency to see philosophy everywhere, but I honestly believe Maugham’s works are the classics they are because of their deep philosophical underpinnings. Their strong plots and Maugham’s masterful storytelling help, but what makes them timeless is the fact that Maugham gives voice to the restlessness of our hearts, and puts in words the stirring uncertainties of our souls. Our questions have always been the same. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And where are we headed? Quo vadis?

Of all the books of this kind that I have read, and I have read many, The Razor’s Edge takes on the last question most directly. When Larry says, out of the blue, “The dead look so awfully dead.” we get an idea of what his quest, and indeed the inquiry of the book, is going to be.

Larry Darrell is as close to human flawlessness as Maugham ever gets. His cynical disposition always produced vivid characters that were flawed human beings. We are used to snobbishness in Elliott Templeton, fear and hypocrisy in the vicar of Blackstable, self-loathing even in the self-image of Philip Carey, frivolity in Kitty Garstin, undue sternness in Walter Fane, the ludicrous buffoonery of Dirk Stroeve, abysmal cruelty in Charles Strickland, ultimate betrayal in Blanche Stroeve, fatal alcoholism in Sophie, incurable promiscuity in Mildred — an endless parade of gripping characters, everyone of them as far from human perfection as you and me.

But human perfection is what is sought and found in Larry Darrell. He is gentle, compassionate, single-mindedly hardworking, spiritually enlightened, simple and true, and even handsome (although Maugham couldn’t help but bring in some reservations about it). In one word, perfect. So it is only with an infinite amount of vanity that anybody can identify himself with Larry (as I secretly do). And it is a testament to Maugham’s mastery and skill that he could still make such an idealistic character human enough for some people to see themselves in him.

As I plod on with these review posts, I’m beginning to find them a bit useless. I feel that whatever needed to be said was already well said in the books to begin with. And, the books being classics, others have also said much about them. So why bother?

Let me wind up this post, and possibly this review series, with a couple of personal observations. I found it gratifying that Larry finally found enlightenment in my native land of Kerala. Written decades before the hippie exodus for spiritual fulfillment in India, this book is remarkably prescient. And, as a book on what life is all about, and how to live it to its spiritual fullness in our hectic age, The Razor’s Edge is a must read for everybody.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t “get” Catch-22 the first time I read it. That was some twenty years ago, may be I was too young then. Halfway through my third read a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized – it was a caricature!

Caricatures are visual; or so I thought. Catch-22, however, is a literary caricature, the only one of its kind I have read. Looking for a story line in it that ridicules the blinding craziness of a cruelly crazy world is like looking for anguish in Guernica. It is everywhere and nowhere. Where shall I begin? I guess I will jot down the random impressions I got over my multiple reads.

Catch-22 includes one damning indictment on the laissez-faire, enterprise-loving, free market, capitalistic philosophy. It is in the form of the amiable, but ultimately heartless, Milo Minderbinder. With inconceivable pricing tactics, Milo’s enterprise makes money for his syndicate in which everybody has a share. What is good for the syndicate, therefore, has to be good for everybody, and we should be willing to suffer minor inconveniences like eating Egyptian cotton. During their purchasing trips, Yossarian and Dunbar have to put up with terrible working conditions, while Milo, mayor to countless towns and a deputy Shaw to Iran, enjoys all creature comforts and finer things in life. But, fret not, everybody has a share!

It is hard to miss the parallels between Milo and the CEOs of modern corporations, begging for public bailouts while holding on to their private jets. But Heller’s uncanny insights assume really troubling proportions when Milo privatizes international politics and wars for everybody’s good. If you have read The Confessions of an Economic Hitman, you would be worried that the warped exaggerations of Heller are still well within the realm of reality. The icing on the cake comes when someone actually demands his share — Milo gives him a worthless piece of paper, with all pomp and ceremony! Remind you of your Lehman minibonds? Life indeed is stranger than fiction.

But Milo’s exploits are but a minor side story in Catch-22. The major part of it is about crazy Yossarian’s insanity, which is about the only thing that makes sense in a world gone mad with war and greed and delusions of futile glory.

Yossarian’s comical, yet poignant dilemmas put the incongruities of life in an unbearably sharp focus for us. Why is it crazy to try to stay alive? Where is the glory in dying for some cause when death is the end of everything, including the cause and the glory?

Along with Yossarian, Heller parades a veritable army of characters so lifelike that you immediately see them among your friends and family, and even in yourself. Take, for instance, the Chaplin’s metaphysical musings, Appleby’s flawless athleticism, Orr’s dexterity, Colonel Cathcart’s feathers and black-eyes, General Peckam’s prolix prose, Doc Daneeka’s selfishness, Aarfy’s refusal to hear, Nately’s whore, Luciana’s love, Nurse Duckett’s body, the 107 year old Italian’s obnoxious words of wisdom, Major Major’s shyness, Major — de Caverley’s armyness — each a masterpiece in itself!

On second thought, I feel that this book is too big a chef d’oervre for me to attempt to review. All I can do is to recommend that you read it — at least twice. And leave you with my take-away from this under-rated epic.

Life itself is the ultimate catch 22, inescapable and water-tight in every possible way imaginable. The only way to make sense of life is to understand death. And the only way to understand death is to stop living. Don’t you feel like letting out a respectful whistle like Yossarian at this simple beauty of this catch of life? I do!

The Unreal Universe – Reviewed

The Straits Times

pback-cover (17K)The national newspaper of Singapore, the Straits Times, lauds the readable and conversation style used in The Unreal Universe and recommends it to anybody who wants to learn about life, the universe and everything.

Wendy Lochner

Calling The Unreal Universe a good read, Wendy says, “It’s well written, very clear to follow for the nonspecialist.”

Bobbie Christmas

Describing The Unreal Universe as “such an insightful and intelligent book,” Bobbie says, “A book for thinking laymen, this readable, thought-provoking work offers a new perspective on our definition of reality.”

M. S. Chandramouli

M. S. Chandramouli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras in 1966 and subsequently did his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. After an executive career in India and Europe covering some 28 years he founded Surya International in Belgium through which he now offers business development and industrial marketing services.

Here is what he says about The Unreal Universe:

“The book has a very pleasing layout, with the right size of font and line spacing and correct content density. Great effort for a self-published book!”

“The impact of the book is kaleidoscopic. The patterns in one reader’s mind (mine, that is) shifted and re-arranged themselves with a ‘rustling noise’ more than once.””The author’s writing style is remarkably equidistant from the turgid prose of Indians writing on philosophy or religion and the we-know-it-all style of Western authors on the philosophy of science.”

“There is a sort of cosmic, background ‘Eureka!’ that seems to suffuse the entire book. Its central thesis about the difference between perceived reality and absolute reality is an idea waiting to bloom in a million minds.”

“The test on the ‘Emotionality of Faith,’ Page 171, was remarkably prescient; it worked for me!”

“I am not sure that the first part, which is essentially descriptive and philosophical, sits comfortably with the second part with its tightly-argued physics; if and when the author is on his way to winning the argument, he may want to look at three different categories of readers – the lay but intelligent ones who need a degree of ‘translation,’ the non-physicist specialist, and the physicist philosophers. Market segmentation is the key to success.”

“I think this book needs to be read widely. I am making a small attempt at plugging it by copying this to my close friends.”

Steven Bryant

Steven is a Vice President of Consulting Services for Primitive Logic, a premier Regional Systems Integrator located in San Francisco, California. He is the author of The Relativity Challenge.

“Manoj views science as just one element in the picture of life. Science does not define life. But life colors how we understand science. He challenges all readers to rethink their believe systems, to question what they thought was real, to ask “why”? He asks us to take off our “rose colored glasses” and unlock new ways of experiencing and understanding life. This thought provoking work should be required reading to anyone embarking on a new scientific journey.”

“Manoj’s treatment of time is very thought provoking. While each of our other senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – are multi-dimensional, time appears to be single dimensional. Understanding the interplay of time with our other senses is a very interesting puzzle. It also opens to door to the existence possibilities of other phenomena beyond our know sensory range.”

“Manoj’s conveys a deep understanding of the interaction of our physics, human belief systems, perceptions, experiences, and even our languages, on how we approach scientific discovery. His work will challenge you to rethink what you think you know is true.”

“Manoj offers a unique perspective on science, perception, and reality. The realization that science does not lead to perception, but perception leads to science, is key to understanding that all scientific “facts” are open for re-exploration. This book is extremely thought provoking and challenges each reader the question their own beliefs.”

“Manoj approaches physics from a holistic perspective. Physics does not occur in isolation, but is defined in terms of our experiences – both scientific and spiritual. As you explore his book you’ll challenge your own beliefs and expand your horizons.”

Blogs and Found Online

From the Blog Through The Looking Glass

“This book is considerably different from other books in its approach to philosophy and physics. It contains numerous practical examples on the profound implications of our philosophical viewpoint on physics, specifically astrophysics and particle physics. Each demonstration comes with a mathematical appendix, which includes a more rigorous derivation and further explanation. The book even reins in diverse branches of philosophy (e.g. thinking from both the East and the West, and both the classical period and modern contemporary philosophy). And it is gratifying to know that all the mathematics and physics used in the book are very understandable, and thankfully not graduate level. That helps to make it much easier to appreciate the book.”

From the Hub Pages

Calling itself “An Honest Review of The Unreal Universe,” this review looks like the one used in the Straits Times.

I got a few reviews from my readers through email and online forums. I have compiled them as anonymous reviews in the next page of this post.

Click on the link below to visit the second page.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I don’t get symbolism. Rather, I do get it, but I’m always skeptical that I may be getting something the author never intended. I think and analyze too much instead of just lightening up and enjoying what’s right in front of me. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit like those tourists (Japanese ones, if I may allow myself to stereotype) who keep clicking away at their digital cameras often missing the beauty and serenity of whatever it is that they are recording for posterity.

But, unlike the tourist, I can read the book again and again. Although I click as much the second time around and ponder as hard, some things do get through.

When I read Siddhartha, I asked myself if the names like Kamala and Kamaswami were random choices or signified something. After all, the first part “Kama” means something akin to worldliness or desire (greed or lust really, but not with so much negative connotation) in Sanskrit. Are Vasudeva and Givinda really gods as the name suggests?

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Siddhartha is the life-story of a contemporary of Buddha — about 2500 years ago in India. Even as a young child, Siddhartha has urges to pursue a path that would eventually take him to salvation. As a Brahmin, he had already mastered the prayers and rituals. Leaving this path of piety (Bhaktiyoga), he joins a bunch of ascetics who see the way to salvation in austerity and penances (probably Hatayoga and Rajayoga). But Siddhartha soon tires of this path. He learns almost everything the ascetics had to teach him and realizes that even the oldest and wisest of them is no closer to salvation than he himself is. He then meets with the Buddha, but doesn’t think that he could “learn” the wisdom of the illustrious one. His path then undergoes a metamorphosis and takes a worldly turn (which is perhaps a rendition of Grahasthashrama or Karmayoga). He seeks to experience life through Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and Kamaswamy the merchant. When at last he is fully immersed in the toxic excesses of the world, his drowning spirit calls out for liberation from it. He finally finds enlightenment and wisdom from the river that he had to cross back and forth in his journeys between the worlds of riches and wisdom.

For one who seeks symbolism, Siddhartha provides it aplenty.

  • Why is there a Vaishnava temple when Siddhartha decides to forgo the spiritual path for a world one? Is it a coincidence or is it an indication of the philosophical change from an Advaita line to a patently Dwaita line?
  • Is the name Siddhartha (same as that of the Buddha) a coincidence?
  • Does the bird in the cage represent a soul imprisoned in Samsara? If so, is its death a sad ending or a happy liberation?
  • The River of life that has to be crossed — is it Samsara itself? If so, is the ferryman a god who will help you cross it and reach the ultimate salvation? Why is it that Siddhartha has to cross it to reach the world of Kamala and Kamaswamy, and cross it back to his eventual enlightenment? Kamala also crosses the river to his side before passing on.
  • The affection for and the disillusionment in the little Siddhartha is the last chain of bondage (Mohamaya) that follows Siddhartha across the river. It is only after breaking that chain that Siddhartha is finally able to experience Nirvana — enlightenment and liberation. Is there a small moral hiding there?

One thing I noticed while reading many of these great works is that I can readily identify myself with the protagonist. I fancy that I have the simple greatness of Larry Darrell, and fear that I secretly possess the abominable baseness of Charles Strickland. I feel the indignant torture of Philip Carey or Jay Gatsby. And, sure, I experience the divine urges of Siddhartha. No matter how much of a stretch each of these comparisons may be. Admittedly, this self-identification may have its roots more in my vanity than any verisimilitude. Or is it the genius of these great writers who create characters so vivid and real that they talk directly to the naked primordial soul within us, stripped of our many layers of ego? In them, we see the distorted visions of our troubled souls, and in their words, we hear the echoes of our own unspoken impulses. Perhaps we are all the same deep within, part of the same shared consciousness.

One thing I re-learned from this book is that you cannot learn wisdom from someone else. (How is that for an oxymoron?) You can learn knowledge, information, data — yes. But wisdom — no. Wisdom is the assimilation of knowledge; it is the end product of your mind and soul working on whatever you find around you, be it the sensory data, cognitive constructs, knowledge and commonsense handed down from previous generations, or the concepts you create for yourself. It is so much a part of you that it is you yourself, which is why the word Buddha means Wisdom. The person Buddha and his wisdom are not two. How can you then communicate your wisdom? No wonder Siddhartha did not seek it from the Buddha.

Wisdom, according to Hermann Hesse, can come only from your own experiences, both sublime and prosaic.

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.
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