Model or Reality?

Introduction

Man’s investigation of nature (science) or his own nature (adhyatma vidya) raises a fundamental question. Do such investigations yield a description of reality or merely models of reality? For example, is the Big Bang model a model of reality or is it actually describing the real universe? I will describe here two examples, one from science and another from Brihadaranayaka Upanishad, to suggest that both science or adhyatma vidya yield only models of reality and not reality itself.

Light – wave or particle?

Light is one of the most mysterious of all natural phenomena. It was Sir Isaac Newton who around 1700 first thought of light as a particle. Newton’s particle idea was challenged by some of his contemporaries. Around 1805 it was Thomas Young who showed the wave nature of light by performing the famous two-slit experiments. Young found an interference pattern when a screen with two slits was illumined by light thus suggesting that light is a wave.

Wave nature of light was further confirmed around 1850 when Armand Fizeau conducted experiments that demonstrated that the velocity of light is a constant, regardless of the motion of the medium it is passing through. It was previously established that light traveled at different rates through  different media. However, prior to Fizeau’s discovery, it was believed that if the medium was in motion, the velocity of the speed of light would be increased. Fizeau conducted studies in which he measured the speed of light through flowing liquids. He discovered that the velocity of light did not increase when going through moving liquids. His observations were contradictory  to Newton’s predictions. This led to the overthrow of Newton’s idea that light is a paticle. It was Maxwell who around 1850 showed from the Maxwell equations that electromagnetic waves travelled through vacuum at the speed of light thus "conclusively" proving the wave nature of light. Around 1900, however, the German scientist Planck reintroduced the idea of light as a particle (photon) in order to explain the black body effect. Einstein conclusively proved in 1905 the particle nature of light when he was able to explain the photoelectric effect by assuming that light consists of photons.

Let me sum up the scientific position on the nature of light between 1700 and 1910:

1710 Newton light consists of particles
1805 Young light consists of waves
1850 Fizeau light consists of waves
1850 Maxwell light is electromagnetic wave
1900 Planck light consists of photons
1905 Einstein light consists of photons

So light changed from being thought of as being particle in nature between 1700 and 1805 to wavelike in nature between 1805 and 1900 and having both  particle and wave attributes after 1900. The puzzle deepens when you see that there is no logical connection between the Maxwell equations that definitively describe the electromagnetic wave nature of light and the photonic nature of light. So what then is the "real" nature of light?

Einstein remarked in 1951 that he does not understand the nature of light even after thinking about it for 50 years. The struggle to understand the nature of light suggests that science only provides us with models and does not tell us about the real nature of the phenomena being studied.

Brahman – one, two or three thousand and three?

I give below a quote from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Then Vidaghdha, son of Shakala, asked him, "How many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?" Yajnavalkya, ascertaining the number through a group of mantras known as the Nivid, replied, "As many as are mentioned in the Nivid of the gods: three hundred and three, and three thousand and three."

"Very good," said the son of Shakala, "and how many gods are there,  Yajnavalkya?"
"Thirty-three."

"Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"

"Six."

"Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"

"Three."

"Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"

"Two."

"Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"

"One and a half."

"Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"

"One."

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.9.1)

Yajnavalkya’s description of Brahman reminds me of the nature of light discussed earlier. It is not really possible to describe the "real" nature of Brahman. Monotheism, polytheism etc are only models of Brahman.

This idea is beautifully stated in the Ramakrishna Kathamrita:

"What Brahman is cannot be described. All things in the world – the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras, the six systems of philosophy – have been defiled, like food that has been touched by the tongue. Only one thing has not been defiled in this way, and that is Brahman. No one has ever been able to say what Brahman is.

Brahman is beyond word and thought. It is said in the Vedas that Brahman is of the nature of Bliss. It is Satchidananda. In Samadhi one attains the  knowledge of Brahman – one realizes Brahman. In that state reasoning stops altogether, and man becomes mute. He has no power to describe the nature of Brahman."

– Sri Ramakrishna

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