After our trip through the Looking Glass, we close out discussing bindus in a perhaps anti‑climatic fashion by looking at how yoga and quantum mechanics both agree that we can’t know everything all the time.
Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:
|Intro||Ch 1||Ch 2||Ch 3||Ch 4||Ch 5||Ch 6||Ch7||Ch 8|
|Ch 9||Ch 10||Ch 11||Ch 12||Ch 13||Ch 14||Ch 15||Ch 16||Ch 17|
|Ch 18||Ch 19||Ch 20||Ch 21||Ch 22||Ch 23||Ch 24||Ch 25||Ch 26|
|Ch 27||Ch 28||Ch 29||Ch 30||Ch 31||Ch 32||Ch 33|
[A couple quick notes: (1) Thanks for your patience since the last chapter of Yogic View of Consciousness, and (2) the comic images used above are from Wendy Pini’s classic comic book Elfquest (see also Wikipedia if you wish) The images are used under Fair Use and illustrate quite beautifully the theme of this chapter.]
The previous chapter explained how quantum mechanics (QM) draws on the mathematical pattern expressed by a Fourier transform and superimposes it over the behavior of very, very small natural system. The key insight to come from this exercise was the Uncertainty Principle. Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutras had things to say about the ultra-small and about the uncertainty of things that help put the insights of QM in a larger context.
There is one aphorism in the Yoga Sutras pertaining to very small natural systems, and it seems appropriate to begin with it. It is 3.26:
“Knowledge of the small, the hidden or the distant by directing the light of superphysical faculty.”
Here it is claimed that one who has developed relatively advanced skill with samadhi can perceive phenomenon not accessible to our physical senses. The list includes: (1) very small systems, (2) things hidden from physical perceptions (the “subtle”, e.g. the nonphysical planes), and (3) things that are far away—distant—from immediate sensory access.
This is an example of a siddhi obtained through yoga practice. As I briefly described in Chapter 3 of What is Science? siddhis are the “super-powers” one can obtain via advanced yoga practices. The siddhi described in aphorism 3.26 has been dubbed aṇimā. Two sources that discuss aṇimā are: (1) C.W. Leadbeater’s book Clairvoyance, and (2) Stephen M. Phillips book Extra-sensory Perception of Quarks. I will briefly summarize each source.
Leadbeater claimed there is a small tube of non-physical matter served as an extension of the ajna or third-eye chakra that mediates these perceptions. He claimed that the snake present between the eyebrows on the headdresses of Egyptian pharaohs was a symbolic depiction of this subtle tube used for aṇimā perceptions.
While this interpretation may sound fantastic to those unfamiliar with it, there is an at least hundred year history in the West with whom these ideas are consistent. Studies of hypnagogia, lucid dreaming, and near death experiences (NDE) uniformly report the perception of tunnel-like structures that lead to “other worlds”.
I myself have experienced these perceptions many times, not because I am an advanced yogi, but because they occur even in lucid dreams. I will not detail these perceptions here, and some mention of them was made in DO_OBE. The perceptions indeed “feel” as if they occur between the eyes. They bear a variable relationship to one’s perception of their body image. Sometimes the body image perception (somaesthesia) is normal, and these visual perceptions appear as small point-like windows or tunnels in the visual field, much like Leadbeater described. In the case of lucid dreams and NDEs, the perception of the body image may be such that it “feels” as if one is inside of the tunnel-like structure.
That is all I will say here regarding the experiential aspect of aṇimā. Let us continue considering how this all may link to QM.
The Uncertainty Principle
Dr. Phillips described in great detail the Occult Chemistry investigations of Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater. Besant and Leadbeater claimed to use aṇimā to directly observe “atoms”. Phillips interpreted their work in terms of modern particle physics. If you are interested, you can see his work at the link above or online here.
Last time we discussed how the Uncertainty Principle of QM has its roots in the Fourier transform relationship whereby if we know one of the conjugate variables of the Fourier transform precisely (e.g. it has the form of a Dirac delta function) the other conjugate variable will inevitably be spread out over a sine wave.
According to the Copenhagen interpretation of QM, the Uncertainty Principle is a consequence of a micro-thing interacting with a macroscopic object. Measuring a micro-thing will alter the properties we are trying to measure. For example, if we want to know the position of an electron, we must use some kind of probe to detect the electron, usually a light beam of some type. In this case the light will interact with the electron and change both its position and momentum. The uncertainty cannot be avoided and is a natural consequence of the fact that a micro-thing must be probed to be measured. There is nothing mysterious going on here, it is all quite physical.
It is interesting to note that Phillips showed that even aṇimā perceptions affect the object being perceived. Phillips was forced to conclude that aṇimā consists of some type of force or energy that interacts with the micro-system and thereby alters its properties. Specifically, aṇimā somehow “bursts” the atomic system, which reforms in a different phase. It is with this logic he explains the differences between the Occult Chemistry observations of Besant and Leadbeater and those of mainstream high energy particle physics.
The Uncertainty Principle to the Nth Degree
What Phillips described with aṇimā is a special case of a more general situation described in the Yoga Sutras. We may consider this the yogic equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle. However, as I’ve said already, with the Eastern approach, things are taken to their logical extreme. Here is how the Yoga Sutras describes its “uncertainty principle” in aphorism 2.15:
“To the people who have developed discrimination all is misery on account of the pains resulting from change, anxiety and tendencies, as also on account of the conflicts between the functioning of the Gunas and the Vrttis (of the mind).”
The East has very long traditions, reflected in this aphorism, of focusing on the basis of pain and suffering in life. However, let’s take a more depersonalized view and look at what is being said here about the nature of things. The meat of this aphorism is that it describes parinama, which means “change” or “transformation”. Parinama is a very important working concept in yoga practices. What aphorism 2.15 is saying is that everything changes.
Underlying this aphorism is the theory of the three gunas: (1) tamas, or inertial, (2) rajas, or chaotic motion, and (3) sattva, or rhythmic motion. The prologue of What Is Science? explains the gunas in more detail. To briefly summarize: to the Hindu mind, all things are made of gunas, which are patterns of motion. What they call “Manifestation” is not constructed of objects, but of a great diversity of patterns of movement. All the patterns of movement are thought of as combinations of the three gunas. The gunas combine in a fashion analogous to how red, green, and blue, taken in various proportions, can generate all possible colors.
The gunas are in an incessant state of movement amongst themselves. Because of this, nothing in Manifestation is stable. Everything transforms into something else, either more or less slowly or quickly. Two factors prevent the patterns of gunas from being stable. First, the very nature of the gunas is motion, hence they cannot be at rest. Second, the seeming stability of anything – be it a star, planet, mountain, whatever – is only apparent. Any seemingly isolated object is connected, networked, to all other objects. The activity of the remainder impinges on the apparent object, forcing change upon it.
The key idea here is that nothing in Manifestation is stable in time. If this is the case, then how can anything be said to have a definite identity? Form implies transformation.
The changes are not arbitrary, however. An elephant does not magically turn into a building. The Yoga Sutras offers up its own theory of how things transform. These ideas are found in aphorisms 4.2 and 4.3:
What is being said here is that things only change into what is latent in them in the first place. Furthermore, the cause of the change is inherent in the thing, not in the apparent outside factor (the incidental cause) that seemed to cause the change. All of this is well-known from first-hand experience. The seed of an oak tree does not bloom into a lilac bush. When we process iron ore, we do not obtain gold metal. When we burn wood, the ashes are not made of comedy. The ashes are a potential state of the wood, latent in it from the beginning. They are a permutation of the state of gunas of which the wood consists. All transformation occurs based on the two “rules” listed above.
Knowing what is expressed in aphorisms 4.2 and 4.3, we can return to aphorism 2.15. Things are constantly transforming, not in an arbitrary fashion, but in a patterned fashion. Nonetheless, this incessant change means there is nothing in Manifestation to which one can anchor themselves.
The ever-changing pattern of gunas is called in Hindu thought “maya”. Maya is the illusion that something is there when it is actually not, like a mirage. To seek permanence in Manifestation is maya because Manifestation is incessant transformation. The very nature of Manifestation is an unceasing churning of patterns of gunas into other patterns of gunas. Maya is thus how the Hindu mind expresses its “uncertainty principle”. The Uncertainty Principle of QM is a limited special case of the much more general Hindu insights about maya.
How are these two ideas linked? Maya tells us that identity is temporary and transient. The Uncertainty Principle of QM tells us we cannot know simultaneously all of the properties of a micro-object (specifically it says this about non-commuting observables). These are different emphases on the same underlying idea.
Is knowing the properties of an object the same as knowing the essence of an object? This is an age-old question in Western philosophy that dates back at least to Aristotle. It has never been solved in philosophical terms. QM offers its own take on this ancient question.
Consider the following: My eye color, my height, the sound of my voice, etc.; these are examples of properties that I possess. Knowing them gives knowledge of me as an individual, as opposed to only having an empty template of a generic human for which we could fill in some hypothetical eye color, height, voice timber, etc. Similarly, the charge, energy, momentum, location, etc. are the properties of an individual electron. However, we cannot know these to any arbitrary detail. Thus, we have a template-like understanding of micro-things, but cannot know individual instances, not even in principle. Bohr, Heisenberg, and others of the Copenhagen school were quite definite about this. It was this issue that bothered the classical determinists like Einstein and Schrödinger so much.
The Uncertainly Principle in QM prevents us from knowing individual micro-things, from knowing their identities as individuals. Maya tells us that individual things are only temporary appearances, and we never really know the essence underlying the many transformations of a given thing. That is, in fact, one of the central goals of yoga practice: to see through the myriad changes that define the superficial appearance of things to the underlying essence.
The Uncertainty Principle of QM sets limits on our behavior. It forces us to act in certain ways and not act in other ways. Hinduism in general and yoga in particular have developed means to cope with maya:
Vairagya is one of the two faces of yoga, the other being abhyasa, the practices. Ninety per cent of yoga are the practices: yama, niyama, asanas, etc., the eight limbs of practice Patanjali describes. These are useless without the final 10% of vairagya, which is the impersonal, dispassionate attitude required of the yogi when undertaking the practices.
This is how yoga has come to recognize and codify the uncertainty inherent in Manifestation. As I stated elsewhere, what we call “objectivity” in the West is but a pale reflection of vairagya. When one realizes that the forms of nature are like the ever changing winds, the ever shifting sands, one makes no attempt at all to grasp them. Seeking to grasp maya is the ultimate act of futility. It is identical to chasing after mirages of water in the desert.
QM implies realization analogous to what is codified in yoga as vairagya. However, the values implied here far transcend science. The greater society at large in the West is the opposite of vairagya. It rests on the delusions that it can grasp the ungraspable, tame the untamable, stop the ever-changing, ever-transforming gunas. As if life can be forever frozen in a block of amber. Because of this, QM has become the West’s Pandora’s Box: an amplifier of illusions.
The Continuous and the Discreet in Science and Yoga
There are two other places where yoga and QM converge in an obvious way. This is with regard to the issues of (1) continuous versus discreet and (2) the philosophical problem of the One and the Many. These two problems are more related than it may seem at first glance. The One is, in some sense, continuous. The Many, like the numbers, are discreet. They are different ways to formulate the same problem.
Without going into great detail on the matter, most of 20th century physics up to the present is characterized by the inability to link QM with the other great theory of modern physics, Einstein’s General Relativity. There are mainstream ideas about this, easily accessible via a Google search, and I will not discuss them here. Instead, my point of departure is to focus on how QM reflects the discreet nature of things whereas General Relativity is based on continuity.
Yogic cosmology is in closer agreement with QM regarding the relative roles of the discreet and continuous. It explicitly describes time as discreet, something physics is only beginning to explore seriously. I discussed this aspect of yoga previously and will not repeat myself. We also have seen that yogic cosmology divides Manifestation into four discreet “worlds” or “levels of energy”, if you will. These are the four phases or states of the gunas: visesa, avisesa, linga, and alinga, which I outlined in Chapter 9. These give rise to four corresponding phases or states of the mind, described in Chapter 10.
We see in our own direct experience how discreetness occurs in the world. Everything comes packaged as discreet things. Humans manifest as discreet human beings, trees as discreet trees. Manifestation presents itself as a kaleidoscope of seemingly endless discreet objects: Planets, stars, galaxies, grains of sand, atoms, electrons, and so on.
However, we have repeatedly emphasized that the seeming discreetness of things is only apparent. All discreet things are hooked together, are networked, via a myriad of forces that are not directly visible to our senses. We do not see gravity, we see the effects of gravity. Gravity serves to link the entire universe together in a giant network. We do not see the social bonds between people (as anyone who has ever walked into a room full of strangers is aware); we see the effects of these bonds. We do not perceive a magnetic field around a magnet, but can make it visible by its effect on iron filings.
In some sense, these invisible forces between apparently discreet objects is a type of continuity. Or we can frame this as a question: are networks discreet or continuous? It seems absurd on the face to ask this because networks are composed of discreet nodes. However, the links binding the nodes form a superstructure that links the nodes into a single unified structure, and thus a type of continuity.
In QM, the discreet objects like electrons and photons are seen as disturbances of the electromagnetic field. The field is a continuous object, but it produces seemingly discreet phenomena.
So we have this strange situation in Manifestation: both discreetness and continuity function and operate. We see discreetness wrapped in continuity, which itself is composed of discreet things at a smaller scale, which themselves are products of a continuous phenomenon, and so on. Discreetness wrapped in continuity wrapped in discreetness wrapped in continuity wrapped in discreetness…
The Continuous and the Discreet in Mathematics
These issues take us into the heart of major controversies in mathematics. Discreetness is easy to understand. It is the counting numbers we all know: 1, 2, 3… But what is continuity? There are several working definitions of continuity in mathematics. The fact that there are many working definitions but no universal and general formulation of continuity is an expression of the elusive nature of continuity.
Chapter 14 discussed Cantor and his ideas of infinity. Cantor sought to bind the discreet and the continuous with his “sets”. He believed he could bind the discreet into the continuous by decree, by declaring that all the discreet numbers, taken as a whole, form infinity.
Instead, he set off a firestorm amongst the intellectuals aware of his efforts. On one hand was Hilbert and his followers, the “paradise” crowd. Slowly, the emptiness of their speculations is becoming apparent. Hilbert’s useless hotel and the multiverse are much the same vacuous intellectual construct. The detractors of Cantor amplified on the discreet nature of things, on their paradoxes and contradictions, giving us these computers we value so highly.
The issue has never been solved in mathematics. It will never definitively be solved. The relations between the discreet and continuous are a bottomless well of insight and will provide fodder for the mathematical mind until the human form of gunas is wiped from the face of Eternity.
The One and The Many
This brings us full circle in the discussion of the bindu in yoga. Taimni introduced the idea that the bindu is like a prism, diffracting the unity and wholeness of The One into the Many. We have explored that idea from various angles. We see that a similar idea sits at the heart of QM: the Fourier transform takes a single point (delta function) and “spreads it out” into a sine wave of infinite extent. QM, drawing on mathematics that came after Fourier, takes this “trick” to the Nth degree by showing how physical systems that appear to be composed of discreet particles in fact give rise to many different types of spectra. This whole way of thinking is one way to embody the problem of the One and the Many.
The cosmology of yoga and of our most respected modern science converge around this eternal paradox. Yoga answers it in an extreme way relative to the sensibilities of the modern Western person. Consciousness is one, infinite, continuous. Within it is the possibility to diffract itself into spectra of consciousness encompassing all possible levels of form and becoming. The mahabindu diffracts consciousness into a seemingly endless series of minds within minds within minds within minds.
The seeds of these insights are present in modern math and physics. But unless the physicists and mathematicians learn to transcend the merely sensory presentations of the mind, unless they begin to unlock the secrets of samadhi, they will forever spin their wheels in the eternally shifting, ever-changing gunas, jumping from vritti to vritti in the futile effort to capture mirages.
See you soon in Part 18.