By Badrinarayan Swami
“Both the Vaishnava theists and the materialists each present their own set of amazing stories. The choice is . . . which set of amazing stories to believe.”
It is the grand conceit of the materialistic worldview that “man is the measure of all things.” When we dig a little deeper, we find that this premise is based on a profoundly arrogant presumption, namely, that all reality can ultimately be subordinated to our sense perception and intellect.
At the same time, many of us have experienced being in a location free from artificial light – say on top of a mountain or in the desert. Gazing up at the night sky and seeing the vast array of stars and planets, we feel how they are both very close and yet very far away. To a reflective person, the sense of our place in the universe becomes dwarfed. Take one of the many virtual excursions offered on-line from our location on earth out to the Milky Way. Perhaps we are not as significant as we think we are.
Let us imagine Christopher Columbus Ant. He is sent out of his colony to explore new worlds. Suppose that in the course of his expedition he crawls over me – up my arm, across my ear, navigating his way through the hairs on my head, back down my other arm to terra firma. He will report to his queen: “I have discovered vast lands, canyons, forests – all uninhabited.”
He is crawling on me, and yet, due to his limited perception, to him I don’t even exist as a person. It is worth considering that our scope of perception and experience may also have limits like those of our ant explorer.
Einstein postulated that we live in a multidimensional universe. Let’s go with that concept for a moment. Suppose you and I agree to meet downtown at the corner of Fifth and Main at 10 a.m. tomorrow. To be quite certain, we agree to meet on the northwest corner of the intersection. Being a responsible person, you arrive at the designated spot by 9:45 a.m. You wait until 10:30 a.m. without seeing me. Having other obligations, you have to leave. We meet the next day and I ask you, “Where were you? I was there from 9:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., but no sign of you.” You assure me that you were also there at the right time, right day, and right location. How is it possible that we missed each other?
Add a building at that northwest corner. In two dimensions, length and breadth, we were in the exact same place, but if you add the third dimension of height – say you were on the ground floor and I was on the fifth floor – and lo and behold, we don’t see each other. In one sense we were in two different worlds.
According to the Vedas, we do in fact live in a multidimensional universe. The Vedic yogis and mystics have access to dimensions beyond our level of perception. Thus, what cannot be measured or experienced by the layman is commonplace for them.
As you sit in a room reading this article, there are unseen realities all around you. Turn on a radio and you can experience a ball game. Open up your computer and you can explore faraway worlds. Have a police scanner with you and you can visit a crime scene. There are many worlds hovering around us at all times, which we can perceive only if we have the means to access them. Those who know the science and have the right devices can easily access these unseen realities. In the same way, the Vedas present higher dimensions and descriptions of them.
We do not hide from the fact that Vaishnava theists describe an amazing universe. But the other side of the equation is the fact that the materialists have their own set of amazing stories. Thus, the question is not whether or not to believe in amazing stories; the question is which set of amazing stories to believe – the Vaishnava theists’ or the materialists’?
No Free Lunch
The Vaishnava theists accept that Krishna is the cause of all causes, the source of all existence. The materialists ask us to believe that existence is “the original free lunch,” that everything arose spontaneously from a single point, or “singularity.”
“The most common belief is that all the laws of nature were completely fixed at the moment of the Big Bang. Modern science is based on the principle ‘Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it from nothing, in a single instant.” (Rupert Sheldrake, TED talk, January 13, 2013)
The Vaishnavas have confidence in intelligent design. The materialists ask us to believe that everything in our complex and interdependent universe is driven only by random chance.
The materialists ask us to accept “dark matter,” the 84% of the total mass in the universe that is missing or beyond our perception. Dark matter is a “fudge factor,” a speculative concept added into cosmological models because without it, according to current theories, the cosmos would either spin out to oblivion or implode. It is like adding an imaginary number to make your checkbook balance. We are asked to accept the concept of “dark matter,” though your bank would certainly not accept payment in “dark dollars.” Try telling your bank, “Don’t worry, the money I owe is actually there. You just can’t see it.”
The Vaishnavas present that consciousness is due to the presence of the soul. The materialists ask us to believe that consciousness is only a brain function. They present that in due course computers will become conscious – we can hope that they may keep humans around as pets.
The idea is that one day computers will become sophisticated enough to have that existential “aha moment” – there will eventually come a point where a computer is conscious – feeling emotion and having a sense of self.
But let’s consider this idea for a moment. Look at a pocket translator. You can type in a phrase in English and get the Chinese translation. Is there a tiny Chinese/English speaker inside the pocket translator? Of course not. All that is inside are circuits firing pluses and minuses. These in turn are used for computer code of zeros and ones. By careful design (not by chance, it is worth noting) that carefully-crafted code will provide the Chinese translation.
Now let’s take a stadium full of 100,000 people. In theory, you could work that crowd like the circuits in our pocket translator. You could draw up a set of rules that dictate if person A receives a “1” from person B, then person A gives a “0” to person C. When person C receives a “0” from person B, then person C should give a “1” to person D. In this way, extending a written set of code throughout the stadium, you would have your living computer. In theory, you could submit your English phrase at one goalpost and receive your Chinese translation at the other goalpost, at the far end of the field.
Here’s our question: Did any of our stadium attendees learn a word of Chinese? Did any of them even know that they were translating Chinese? Rather, the level of perception, the level of consciousness, was simply the shuffling of zeros and ones. Why, therefore, is it believed that if we design a sophisticated enough computer it will one day become conscious, feel emotion, and have a sense of self? Instead, no matter how complex a code is written, it will still be only the routing of pluses and minuses, the shuffling of ones and zeros. There will be no creation of consciousness, just as no one became conscious of a single word of Chinese in our stadium.
On Shaky Ground
Existence from nothing, an intricately-balanced universe happening by chance, dark matter, consciousness as merely a brain function – the list of amazing stories we are asked to believe goes on and on. Once again, both the Vaishnava theists and the materialists each present their own set of amazing stories. The choice is not whether or not to believe amazing stories. Rather, the choice is which set of amazing stories to believe – which side of the scale is more logically balanced?
We often encounter a condescending tone from the materialists, steeped as they are in faith in the power of research based on sense perception. Let me offer a few examples that should invoke caution regarding this conviction. Maybe the materialists are not on as solid ground as they present to the public.
• “Microwave oven baffled astronomers for 17 years” / At Parkes Observatory in Australia, their world-renowned radio telescope was picking up strange signals thought to be generated from the outer limits of space. Peer-reviewed papers were published in respected science journals speculating as to the cosmic cause. Turns out that the source was the microwave oven in the staff cafeteria. “If you set it to heat and pulled the door open a little early, it sent a burst of energy that was read by our telescope,” said Simon Johnson, head of astrophysics at the scientific research agency CSIRO. (Wired UK, May 5, 2015)
• “A crisis in physics? If supersymmetry does not pan out, scientists will need a new way to explain the universe.” / From the cover of the May 2014 issue of the magazine Scientific American. They will need a new way to explain the universe? But the glitzy computer animations in National Geographic, Nova, etc. present to the public that they have the cornerstone questions about the universe all nailed down.
• “The replication crisis” / “Scientists have found that the results of many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate on subsequent investigation, either by independent researchers or the original researchers themselves. The world of science is in the middle of unprecedented soul-searching at present. The credibility of science rests on the widespread assumption that the results are replicable and that high standards are maintained by anonymous peer review. These pillars are crumbling.” From Nature magazine, September 1, 2015.
• “Stephen Hawking changes his mind on black holes” / “The world-famous author of A Brief History of Time said he and other scientists had gotten it wrong. In doing so he lost one of the most famous bets in recent scientific history.” (BBC, July 16, 2004)
Sufficient to say that if we are honest, we must concede that we are limited. People often say, “As far as I can see . . .” That is the point – how far can we actually see? Some will counter, “But we have electron microscopes, the Hubble telescope, and the Large Hadron Collider [the most powerful atom smasher].” Try as we might to extend the process of perception by sophisticated instruments, the principle remains the same: our senses and the machines created by them are limited and fallible. We are using our imperfect senses, extended by imperfect machines, to try to find perfection. However, imperfection times imperfection still equals imperfection.
We often hear this challenge: “By continued exploration we are building on our current base of knowledge. Over time we will unlock all the secrets of the universe.” In 1912 the world’s record for pole vaulting was 13′ 2¼”. By improved equipment and training, the record now stands at 20′ 2½”. But will anyone ever be able to pole vault to the moon? In other words, improvement over time is to be expected, but only within a certain range. The same is true of exploratory science using our limited and fallible senses and intellect. Such knowledge will grow, but only within a certain range, only up to a finite degree.
Two Paths to Knowledge
The Vedas outline two processes for gathering knowledge. One is known as aroha-pantha, or “the ascending method,” while the other is known as avaroha-pantha, or “the descending method.” The ascending process is the method of empiric research and speculation. The descending process is the process of accepting revealed knowledge coming down to us via the Vedic scriptures and sages.
The essential question is “How can the finite understand that which is infinite?” Suppose you are sitting eight feet from me. Suppose some mischievous person has put glue on my seat and now I cannot leave my chair. Due to my moored position, I can only stretch my arm out to three feet. Can I shake your hand? By my own efforts, the answer is “no.” But what if you take the initiative and come to me? Then our shaking hands is easily accomplished. The point is that the finite is not be able to reach the infinite by personal endeavor, but if the infinite comes to us, then only does it become possible for us to understand the infinite. The only viable process for understanding the Absolute is revelatory – if the Absolute chooses to reach out to us.
The Vaishnavas are not anti-science. After all, I am writing this article on a computer. I have a pacemaker to keep my heart ticking. We recognize and appreciate the achievements of modern research. The problem comes when our scientist friends go beyond the scope of their actual knowledge and falsely claim to have disproved the Vedic version of reality.
The Vaishnavas honestly recognize humankind’s inherent limitations. We understand that it is impossible to “take the kingdom of God by storm.” Rather, the Vaishnavas astutely practice the Vedic process of realizing truth by descending revelation.
As it has since time immemorial, the Vedic process continues to deliver on its promise: to award sublime knowledge and pure love of God to its serious practitioners.
“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Bhagavad–gita 10.10)