God and the Laws of Physics
Prominent features of the apparent conflict between science and religion stem from the idea that nature exclusively follows physical laws, a conviction established in Western thought during the late 17th century. Subsequent Newtonian concepts of determinism supported deistic notions, and perhaps even the notion that “God is dead” (or at the least exceedingly dormant) in relation to the physical world. Later, during the 19th century, Darwinian theory established similar views within biological studies. Recently, potential opportunities for empirical analyses reconnecting matter and spirit have emerged with the advent of quantum mechanics. With such thoughts in mind, Thompson compares an appreciation of quantum field theory from modern physic, with the idea of shabda (organized vibrational patterns) described in the Vedic tradition. He also considers how paramatma, or Supersoul, could conceivably manipulate the material energy through deterministic chaos without contradicting the laws of classical physics.
TRANSCRIPT: God and the Laws of Physics. Radhadesh, Belgium - 1988 / (202)
Yadunandan: You are listening to Radio Krsna on 87.6 MHz... (music) In this part of Radio Krishna we will hear a lecture by our American scientist, Sadaputa das. This recording is from the Radhadesh Temple in Belgium, and he specifically deals with the relationship between God and modern science. He will mainly do that from a historical perspective, but he will also touch on many other exciting aspects of this interesting topic. He’ll also answer questions in the second half of the lecture. It’s a bit lengthy, so sharpen your ears and listen in! Your host and also at the buttons is Yadunandan das. Welcome to Sadaputa, who speaks in English.
Richard L. Thompson (voice excerpt from a different lecture): The big bang was a different type of explosion because in Einstein’s theory as you go back, the contraction going backwards in time proceeds right down to a point. Mathematically this is what happens in Einstein’s scheme.
[1:40] Lecture begins
Relation between God and the laws of physics. This is an important topic. Historically, with the development of Western science, a conflict arose between science and religion which was based ultimately on the idea that nature is functioning according to certain physical laws. Just to give some background, the idea in the Middle Ages, say in Europe, was that nature is under the control of the will of God. Everything is moving by divine providence. This was the medieval Christian idea and it is the basic idea that you find in all theistic forms of religion: that there is a Supreme Transcendental Intelligent Being who is directly controlling the different phenomena of nature. This idea is very fundamental and it’s directly related to various forms of religious understanding. The very idea of spiritual experience requires that God must have some direct control over the transformations of matter. Because suppose for example that a human being has some experience of God and then tells somebody else about it. Well, by telling somebody else about it, matter is moving in a way which corresponds to that experience. When the person speaks about his experience or writes about it in a book, such as for example Caitanya-caritamrta, then matter is being moved in such a way as to correspond to that experience. Therefore you have to have some link between the way matter is moving and the transcendental reality being described. Also, if someone prays to God and God answers that prayer in some way, then that means that God must be directly controlling the motion of matter in some fashion. So in order to have religion in its traditional form, that is a theistic type of religion - of course there are religions that posit an impersonal absolute which does not interact in any way with nature, and that’s a different situation - but in all those religions that posit a personal supreme controller, it is necessary to suppose that this Supreme Transcendental Person is controlling matter, causing matter to move according to divine will. Of course obviously that is the position Krsna presents in the Bhagavad-gita. With the development of modern science people became convinced of a set of ideas that contradicts this basic conception that God is controlling matter. So what developed was the idea that matter moves according to mechanical laws.
The sort of paradigm for this is the idea of a clock. In around the twelfth to the thirteenth century in Europe clocks became very popular. People began to build very elaborate clocks that they would put in church towers and so forth, and the conception of the universe as an elaborate clock developed. So if you look at a clock you’ll see that you have a mechanism with gears that mesh with one another and so forth, in which everything moves by cause and effect in a deterministic way. The state of the clock at one point in time is determined by the state of the clock at a slightly earlier point in time. So in order to know what the clock is doing you just have to know the rules by which it is functioning and the initial state at some particular time. And with that information you can determine exactly what the clock is going to do from that point onward and there is no question of intervention from any outside force. Of course, obviously, someone can go up to a clock and move the gears, but that’s an interference in the normal functioning of the clock. If someone does that you say, “Well, the clock has been interfered with and it's now malfunctioning; it’s not functioning correctly.” So the idea was developed that the universe is essentially an elaborate clock.
The universe is made up of matter. Matter is composed of some kind of minute atomic constituents. These interact with one another according to laws that can be defined in mathematical terms. And the interactions are deterministic, so that whatever is happening in the universe now is completely determined by what was happening just a moment before, and that is determined by what was happening a moment before that, and so forth. So this is the idea of the clockwork universe. So this kind of idea became prominent in Europe in the time of Descartes and Newton. Of course Newton made a very strong contribution to this idea. The idea had already been current long before his time. But with the development of Newtonian physics scientists became convinced that the universe actually is running in a deterministic fashion. So then the question is, if this is so, what role does God have to play in the unfolding of events within the universe? It would seem that if everything is unfolding in a deterministic fashion then there is no possibility for God to play any role in that, unless God comes and actually violates laws of nature. So this is the idea that developed. Now Newton himself thought that God violated the laws of nature from time to time; he explicitly proposed this. In fact he suggested that the orbits of the planets would not be perfectly regular if the planets simply followed Newton’s laws of motion. He suggested that the planets would drift out of their proper orbits gradually and that God would occasionally intervene and set them into their orbits again. So this was Newton’s idea.
So there’s a philosopher living at the time called Leibniz who disagreed with Newton about this. Actually Newton and Leibniz had a long-standing conflict. For example they had a big battle over who invented calculus; but anyway, Leibniz claimed that Newton was saying that God was like a bad clockmaker, a poor artisan who would make a clock which didn’t keep time properly, so he’d have to keep coming and adjusting it. And Leibniz proposed that actually God was a perfect clockmaker and that he made the universe in such a way that it did not need any further interference or adjustment after the initial creation. So according to this idea, in the beginning of time, at the time of the creation, God constructed the universe and construct the natural laws which govern the motion of the atoms and so forth, and let the whole thing run and didn't intervene with it at all from that time onward. So this more or less became the prevailing idea in the scientific community from that time onward. And that has been true pretty much down to the present day. So this in effect eliminates religion, if by religion you mean the development of a personal relationship between an individual human being and God. The reason that religion is ruled out by this, as I was indicating before, is that if the human being develops some kind of relationship with God, then the behaviour of that human being must change in a way that has something to do directly with God. And since the human body is made of matter that means matter must be moved by God in some way. That is required then, if you're going to have religion. So this idea then, which we can call the mechanistic picture of the universe, rules out religion. So initially it was perhaps not clearly apparent to many people that this was a real consequence of the development of these ideas. Gradually this became more apparent. Of course initially people still thought that you had to have God in order to account for the high degree of order and organisation that you find with in the universe. The idea was that the different forms of life and so forth had to be created in the beginning of time by some Supreme \Intelligence. Otherwise you couldn't account for the existence of this very high level of organisation.
However in about the middle of the 19th century Charles Darwin provided a theory which would explain how order could arise, at least in living systems, without any need to posit some creative intelligence. So he came up with his theory of evolution. Of course Darwin did not create the idea of organic evolution. Darwin's own grandfather had in fact written a book in which he proposed a theory of evolution. But Darwin’s real contribution was that he proposed a mechanistic theory of evolution. That is, that he proposed a way in which living organisms could evolve in a step by step fashion entirely by the action of mechanistic laws, without the intervention of any kind of transcendental intelligence or without invoking any kind of mystical agency of any sort. So that was Darwin’s real contribution, and that essentially filled out the mechanistic picture that the physicists had already elaborated because it eliminated the need to introduce this Supernatural Being into the universe in any way at all. So from that point onward, over the latter part of the 19th century, the idea gradually became firmly established in the scientific community that God has no role at all to play in the universe as an active agency. So the further history then of these ideas is that many Christian denominations or sects have basically adopted this viewpoint. Most of the common people who follow these different Christian churches are perhaps not fully aware of this because it completely eliminates the basis for their religious observances. However the more sophisticated theologians have adopted these views.
I’ll just give you an example of one such theologian. In England there’s a man named John Polkinghorne who was a physicist at Cambridge University for many years and who retired from physics to become an Anglican priest. So you might ask, “How does he reconcile his ideas about physics with the requirements of the Christian theology.” So he's explained this in some detail and basically his proposal is that God's role in the universe is to sustain the laws of nature. His idea is that matter and the laws, the physical laws which govern the behaviour of matter, are being sustained at every moment by God. In this sense God is all pervading and all-powerful. Because according to Polkinghorne, if God did not sustain the actions of the laws of nature at given place, at a given time, then things would simply stop happening there. Matter would cease to exist. In general, if God ceased to sustain the laws of nature, the whole universe would cease to exist. So according to Polkinghorne God is completely necessary, is all powerful, all pervading, sustaining everything, but God's role is simply limited to sustaining the laws of nature. Everything happens according to those laws. So if you want to know what is going on in the world all you need to do is solve the equations of physics and that will tell you. Actually Polkinghorne gave this as an example of the great faithfulness of God and the great consistency that God never deviates even in the slightest degree from what the calculations, according to the laws of physics, would prescribe for a natural phenomenon. So this is his idea. However, once again, this eliminates the possibility of religion. If our own nature is that we are simply material phenomena developing and transforming according to these natural laws, then there is no question of having any kind of relationship with God. Now another aspect here also is that this mechanistic view eliminates the possibility of a nonphysical mind that interacts with the material body. The problem there is completely analogous to the problem of interaction between God and the physical universe. If you have a nonphysical mind which causes the body to move in a certain way according to the will of that mind then that means a violation of the laws of physics. There are no terms in the equations of physics to allow any kind of mind to interfere with what's going on in the brain. So if you say that that does happen, you’re saying that the laws of physics are being violated in the brain. So on this basis scientists have traditionally, for the last two centuries or so, rejected the idea that there is a nonphysical mind. You can find many books today that would say that since this would violate the laws of physics it must be ruled out. So that’s another consequence. The mind then, according to this theoretical view, must be simply a manifestation of the brain. The total human being is simply a material phenomenon which is occurring according to certain physical laws, and that's it.
So this is the legacy of the mechanistic viewpoint in physics, and these ideas were quite thoroughly developed by the latter part of the 19th-century. So now in the 20th century in physics there was a substantial revolution in thought, namely the development of the quantum mechanics, the quantum theory. And many people have thought that quantum theory may possibly introduce or reintroduce an element of free will into physical science. The reason for this is the quantum mechanics is not a deterministic theory. In classical physics, as I was saying, what happens at one moment is strictly determined by what happened a moment before and so forth; but in quantum mechanics there’s the idea of random events; things can happen in a completely unpredictable way so that what happens at one moment could not be predicted based on what was happening a moment before. So some have proposed, “Well, perhaps quantum mechanics then would allow for free will to be reintroduced into our picture of the universe.” However, the actual effect of quantum mechanics has been to push the idea of a transcendental intelligence even further into the background. If you look at the literature produced by physicists in the 19th century you'll find that many physicists were Christians and they also speculated along theological lines in ways similar perhaps to that of this John Polkinghorne; that is, they proposed that God was somehow involved in the universe.
But with the development of quantum mechanics this idea was even more thoroughly eliminated and the reason for this is that quantum mechanics makes it impossible to clearly visualise what matter is, so that it becomes impossible to clearly picture even what the world is, what to speak of anything transcendental to the world of matter. Basically quantum mechanics gives a non-representational picture of material phenomena. The mathematics does not allow one to form any image of what is actually there. At most it simply allows one to make statements about correlations between experimental observations. So as a result of this development, most physicists in the 20th century have adopted a philosophy called positivism in order to understand their theories of physics. Basically what positivism says is that you cannot say what is really there in nature. All you can do is observe correlations between experimental results. So according to this idea, a physical theory is merely some set of mathematical calculations which enable us to predict what an experiment is going to produce, and if in fact the calculations accurately predict the results of the experiment, then it’s good theory; and if they don't make an accurate prediction, then it’s a bad theory. But in either case we can’t make any statement about what's actually there. That's not even a scientific question. If you ask what is actually there you’re delving into areas of metaphysics that have nothing to do with science. So that's the modern viewpoint basically. So according to this idea if you ask what is the relation between God and matter you run into the problem of saying, “Well, what is matter?” and finding the scientists will disapprove of even raising that question. So that's the current situation in physical science.
So that’s a bit of historical background. So what I’ll do now is briefly described a little bit about what the Vedic literatures say about the relation between God and matter. Then we’ll try and see if there is some possibility of bridging the gap between the modern scientific viewpoint and viewpoint you find in the Vedic literature. So in the Vedic literature matter is basically described under the heading of what is called Sankhya philosophy and there are chapters on Sankhya philosophy in various parts of the Vedic literatures. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam for example, this is discussed extensively in the teachings of Lord Kalipa to Devahuti. It’s just one example. So at first glance one may have the impression that the Sankhya philosophy is very naive from the modern scientific point of view because it describes matter as being made of earth, air, fire, water and ether. And one might initially think that this is a very archaic and outmoded idea. In fact, before what is known as the scientific revolution in Europe, people in Europe were thinking that matter is made up of earth, air, fire and water, and they also postulated an element called ‘ether’. Actually, you know the word ‘quintessence’? Quintessence means the fifth substance: quint and essence. So that's originally the meaning of that; it’s ether. It’s the fifth element; the first four are earth, air, fire, and water.
So these ideas in Europe were inherited from the ancient Greeks. For example, Aristotle spoke of these elements, and you’ll find an interesting correlation between some of the things Aristotle had to say about earth, air, fire, water, ether and so forth and the Vedic literature. For example Aristotle proposed that there is a shell of earth, then a shell of water outside of that, then a shell of air, a shell of fire, and finally a shell of ether. This is surrounding the earth. So in the Vedic literature you’ll find a similar conception, but there the successive shells surround the universe as a whole. According to Aristotle’s picture these shells were much smaller. So you reached the shell of ether by the time you got to the orbit of the moon, which meant the moon must be made of ether. So according to the medieval view, all the planets starting with the moon were ethereal, and you find the grosser elements only beneath the level of the moon’s orbit. Nonetheless you can see a correlation there between the Vedic picture and the picture that Aristotle had, and there may well be some historical connections. So the idea of earth, air, fire, water, and ether that you find in Aristotelian thought, the idea there is that these are separate substances which mix together to form all the different forms of matter that we experience.
However in the Sankhya philosophy there’s a different conception and this is that these elements are successive modifications of one underlying element. Actually in the Sankhya philosophy you begin with a fundamental material substrate which is called pradhana. So this pradhana can be thought of as an exceedingly subtle form of matter which we wouldn't even be able to detect with our senses. This pradhana by itself is essentially inert, according to the Vedic conception. But at the time of the creation of the universes, Maha-Visnu glances over the pradhana and sets it into motion. At the same time Maha-Visnu injects spirit souls who have an accumulation of karma into this substrate of pradhana. So later the pradhana undergoes transformation that produce bodies for these spirit souls. So in the Sankhya philosophy it’s described that the first transformation of pradhana produces something called ‘false ego.’ Then there is a further transformation that produces the principles of goodness, passion and ignorance, the three gunas. Then a further transformation of false ego and ignorance produces the element called ‘ether’. Now in the Vedic literature ether is described as being space. So the idea is that material space is a kind of element, if you like. It’s an actual substance in a sense and it's a transformation of this false ego in ignorance. So a further transformation of ether produces air which is characterised by the principle of touch or tactile characteristics. Ether is characterised simply by providing accommodating space for all further material phenomena, and ether is also characterised by sound vibration, or sabda. So this next transformation, air, is characterised by the additional property of touch. Then a further transformation produces the fire element and then a further transformation produces water and then earth. So what you have here is a scheme of reductionism in which one thing is made by a transformation of another thing; and Krsna explains in the 11th canto of the Bhagavatam that since each successive element is produced by a transformation of the preceding elements, the preceding elements are present within each successive element. For example, fire in that sense is really just air because it is made of a transformation of air. Air is just ether because it’s made of a transformation ether and so forth.
You can make a simple example of this if you imagine taking a straight line and bending that into a sort of zigzag pattern (well if this were down here I would draw one for you). But you can imagine a zigzag. Initially if you look at that from a distance it looks say like a broadband of, say, grey color. So you might think of this pattern as being a basic element that could be used to produce other designs. Like you may take this zigzag pattern and place it on a piece of paper in various ways so as to produce some particular design. So you might think that’s a basic pattern element. But if you look at it closely, perhaps with a magnifying glass, you’d see that it’s really just one continuous line that goes back and forth. So in that sense you would say that sort of grey band pattern really is just a straight line that has been bent in certain way, and so forth. So this is the idea of reductionism. Similarly air really is just ether which transformed in a certain way. Fire really is just air, which is just ether transformed in a certain way and so forth.
Well, that idea is very similar to what you have in modern physics. For example we would say that gross matter, like this table, is made of atoms. So the atoms are in turn made of certain subatomic particles.
In modern physics the way that the atoms bind together is described in terms of electromagnetic fields. So you could say then that this gross matter is just a manifestation of electromagnetism. And according physics what's really there is just different electromagnetic fields and currents of electrons in the orbitals of atoms and so forth. So you have there again idea of reductionism. The physicists are thinking that fields such as the electromagnetic field can be reduced down to still more fundamental types of fields. Actually they haven't proceeded very far mathematically in working all this out, but there is an ambition that ultimately it will be possible to explain all different material phenomenal in terms of transformations of one fundamental field. And they call this the ‘Grand Unified Field’. So this is a goal that the physicists are seeking. So in one sense the Vedic literature is already describing matter in a way quite analogous to the idea of the physicists, this idea of reduction to successively finer levels until finally you come to some ultimate field, some ultimate substrate. So the Sankhya philosophy then, if you look at it carefully, is not really so naive at all, and of course there are many things to say about it. In this discussion I’m simply going to focus on the understanding of gross matter, which means that I’m leaving out a great deal. It’s also a fact that in the Sankhya philosophy the guna, or mode, of goodness transforms to produce the mind element, and passion transforms to produce intelligence, and many other things are going on. Actually the Sankhya philosophy provides a description of how gross matter can interact with a transcendental level of existence and there’re many different levels and aspects to this description. So what I’m going to focus on here is how this interaction between gross matter and transcendental levels of existence functions on the gross end of the transformation. That is, if you have a transcendental level here and gross matter here, and there’s some connection between the two, we’re going to look at it on the end where you have gross matter because that's what will be of particular concern to the physicists and scientists who are thinking that it's not possible to have such a connection.
So the Vedic literature, however, provides a hint as to how this connection can work, and this is provided through this idea of ‘creation by sound vibration’. So according to the Vedic literature the different material elements, from ether on down to earth, are manifested by the agency of transcendental sound. This is described in the Bhagavatam, for example, in the teachings of Lord Kapila. So the idea there is that organised vibrational patterns are imposed on the material substrate on a subtle level. The ultimate subtle level according to the Sankhya philosophy is the pradhana . So these vibrational patterns interact and propagate and they produce the subsequent transformations. So it is interesting to see that modern physics actually allows for just such a phenomenon to take place. So I’ll say a few things briefly about that. First of all, in classical physics it is quite possible for a pattern of vibration to produce large-scale patterns of any given desired form; and this is shown by the example of what is called a hologram. Probably you've all seen holograms. What you have in a hologram is a plate, a photographic plate, on which there’s a pattern that you could look at under a microscope. To the naked eye you really can’t see anything, but under a microscope you would see a rather irregular pattern of light and dark areas which would be quite meaningless. But when you shine a light through this pattern, as the light passes through and is partly blocked by the pattern, interference of the light waves is set up, and the result is you get a three-dimensional image floating in space, so that you can actually look at this image from different sides and move around and see it from different perspectives. So this image is produced by the interference of the light. Well this is something occurring in three-dimensional space, but you can also show how wave patterns can produce forms which develop during time.
Basically what you could have is, if you imagine, say, a surface of a pond, you could start with a wave pattern on this pond which initially would not seem at all meaningful. It would seem just like random ripples such as you might see on a windy day on the surface of a pond. But as time passed the waves would come together and they would form some message that, say, spells out letters; and then immediately that would disappear and then a little bit later some other message might appear. You can set up the initial wave pattern in such a way as to allow for this; in fact there is a fairly simple way to do it. I hesitate, I don’t know if it’s (unclear) interesting. Would anyone like to see that? Perhaps I should just describe that on an individual basis since it's a mathematical digression. But basically it is possible to start with an appropriate initial wave pattern which at any given desired later time will coalesce together to produce a large-scale complex pattern. So this can be done according to the equations of physics. The question is, how you get the initial wave pattern? So this is actually done in the creation of holograms. People can do it using light waves. Now according to modern physics, matter is actually a wave phenomenon. This is the idea that appears in quantum physics actually. The difference between, one key difference between, matter waves and light waves is that the waves involved with matter have a very high frequency compared with light waves, and hence very short wavelength. So it's not possible for people to manipulate them so easily. But in principle it would be possible to start a wave pattern in matter which would create a gross material form almost instantaneously, so that you could materialise, say, an apple here in this desk or something like that. As far as the equations are concerned, this kind of thing is quite possible. So the question then is, “Well, what would produce such wave patterns?” Essentially what you need is a source of organisation or a source of information.
Now according to the Vedic literature the Supersoul is present everywhere throughout the material continuum. So if the Supersoul were to adjust the motion of the material elements on a very small scale throughout a certain region of material continuum in a desired fashion, then simply by the action of the wave equations of physics all kinds of different forms and patterns could be produced at will. So this is possible according to the laws of physics. So the basic point that I’m getting at with this development is that it is possible to have God controlling the transformations of matter in a very detailed way and still have matter acting according to physical laws. Now in order to make the story complete, there are various things that have to be taken into account. For example, in this discussion of patterns of waves that I was just outlining, one problem that you have is that even though an initially random or noise-like pattern of waves can very quickly give rise to a highly organised pattern, still the total energy in that noisy, or apparently noisy, pattern is still substantial. It's not small compared to what one can hope to measure with instruments. So one might say “Well, if God produced such a pattern he would still be violating laws of physics in a rather drastic way?” So that would still be unacceptable in the whole domain of physical science.
It turns out though, that there is a recent development in physics which is called ‘deterministic chaos’. This has been studied recently by physicists. Essentially what this development amounts to is that it is then discovered that the classical deterministic physics really isn't so deterministic after all. Basically what people found was that the equations that you can solve, by analysing them mentally and coming up with the calculation that you can write down on paper, in areas where you can actually perform a solution in this way, the results turn out to be deterministic. However there are many problems that people can’t solve. So traditionally the way people looked at these problems was simply that “Well, they’re too hard for us. If we did solve them we would get answers similar to the answers we get for the problems we can solve, but we still haven't figured out how solve these problems yet.” So with the development of computers people began to use brute force calculation to solve some of these equations and they made a very surprising discovery. Namely that the equations do not give deterministic solutions after all. They discovered there is a phenomenon called ‘exponential amplification’ of the solution which essentially makes them nondeterministic.
I’ll give you an idea of how that works. Suppose you’re solving an equation and you get a particular curve as a solution and you make a very slight change in your condition at a given time; let’s suppose that produces an amplified effect later on. So that the change of one unit here will make a difference of 100 units over here. So you can see then that if you could only measure to an accuracy of about one unit here and later on you can only nail down what the things going to be with an accuracy of about hundred, because you can have an initial error of about one, if it’s amplified a hundredfold, you wind up with an error about hundred. So similarly, if in the equations of physics exceedingly slight changes can produce very large effects, the implication of that is that you can have two things: one is very complicated random phenomena in nature and the other possibility is that, if there is a driver available, you can have nature being controlled systematically by intelligence. Just to give a simple example of this, you can work this one out mathematically, you assume that when two spheres collide it’s just a simple elastic collision; there are simple equations for how that works. So you can calculate there, that if you take the motion of the atoms in the gas and at one moment in time you introduce systematic changes of, say, a billionth of a billionth of a degree in the direction of motion of different atoms in a systematic way. Then in about 10 to the minus 10th power seconds the atoms will bounce together to spell out some message. I tried this out using a computer. You can actually do it. You make a little model of how they bounce and you make the desired initial changes – of course you have to know what changes to make – and then sure enough, the bouncing atoms will come together and form letters and spell out a message. So the point is, the change you have to make in the motions in order to get that message to come out a fraction of a second later are so small that they would be completely unmeasurable, even in principle. So the idea then is that it is perfectly possible to have control of the transformations of matter by a higher intelligence if you simply grant (unclear - audio broken ) introduced into the material substrate. So if you go back again to this idea of a unified field in physics, the physicists are striving for this concept of a single continuum which is the basis of all the material (unclear - audio broken) representing all the different laws of physics. So if you postulated not only this field, but also an all-pervading agency that can produce control at exceedingly minute variations in the pattern of this field, then this allows for all the different phenomena of the material universe to be controlled and directed by this intelligent agency.
So of course in the Vedic literature is in fact proposed that the Supersoul is expanded throughout the material continuum and is able to exert such control. So the conclusion then is that there actually is a compatibility between the picture you find in the Vedic literature of the relation between God and the material energy and the concepts of modern physics. Basically one could conclude that modern physicists were misled by the metaphor of the universe as a clock. In fact it's interesting, if you examine the physics of a clock, you will find that you don't have exponential amplification phenomena in a clock. In fact they’re designed so that you don't have that because, of course if you did, the clock wouldn't keep accurate time. So if you examine the equations you'll see there is no amplification. If you make a change of a given magnitude, then later on it only produces a change of more or less that magnitude – it doesn't amplify. In fact it even tends to decrease. So the metaphor of the universe as a clock then eliminated the idea of control; but it's discovered that actually the laws of physics are not like that; they allow for this exponential amplification. So it actually is possible to have a Supreme Intelligence controlling the transformations of matter. So another consequence of this is, it’s also possible to have a nonphysical mind that interacts with the brain, so, because there is an analogy between the relation of God and the universe as a whole and the individual conscious self and the body. So that was basically what I want to outline Actually these ideas should be widely disseminated because people are still very much, especially in academic circles, scientific circles, also all in most of the major religions of today the catholic and so-called liberal protestant denominations and so forth the, idea is very solidly established that you really can’t have God controlling what matter is doing from moment to moment. Yeah?
Answer: Well of course, a number of points can be made there. The development of modern empiricism and the scientific approach to nature has been traced back to the reintroduction of Aristotle’s writings into European thought. You know during the middle ages the writings of Aristotle were lost, but the Arabs retained them. So then in the Renaissance period the different writings attributed to Aristotle were reintroduced into Europe and the actual result of that was the people began, many people at least began, to focus on the study of nature and the development of material technology and so forth. At least some scholars have argued that this can be traced to Aristotle. Whereas Plato had a more mystical orientation which was stressed during the mediaeval period in Europe. So at the same time there are some obvious similarities between Aristotle’s ideas and certain Vedic ideas, from the Sankhya philosophy in particular. Of course that doesn't mean that there is a historical relationship – that would just be basically speculative – but it's quite possible that there was a historical relationship. In fact there is undoubtedly communication between India and ancient Greece for example.
A: Well, we're dealing here with ideas. First of all, all of the theories in modern science, certainly all theories expressed in universal terms, that is universal laws of nature and so forth, these are all simply ideas. No one has ever proven that any of these things are absolutely true. For example here we have all this electronics which is now functioning presumably in a reliable way. So this is all based on Maxwell’s equations, amongst other things, and it seems that it works very nicely. But that doesn't prove that Maxwell’s equations are universally true. Although every time one of these machines works it gives more confirmation that those equations actually apply. So in dealing with these theories we’re really talking about ideas. However, ideas can have a very strong effect on people. People basically, in fact, deal with ideas; they don't deal with actual reality. It's hard to know what is there in actual reality, whereas ideas are easily communicated. So people mainly are concerned with ideas. So these particular theoretical ideas that I was discussing here have had a very important impact on people's thinking. And basically what we are trying to do with the preaching of Krsna Consciousness is to reverse many of these very ingrained ideas of Western thinking. Inevitably we have to do that.
Now it is part of the tradition of the preaching of Krishna Consciousness throughout the centuries, that when there are ideas that are fundamentally opposed to the principles of Krsna Consciousness, the Vaishnava acaryas worked very hard to counteract those ideas. For example there’s the Mayavadi philosophy. Now the Mayavadi philosophy is contrary to the philosophy of Krsna Consciousness and you will see that Madhava Acharya, Ramanuja Acharya, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and so on and so forth, went to great lengths to show that the Mayavadi philosophy is wrong. That’s been going on right down to the present day. Also Srila Prabhupada had a lot to say about the Mayavadi philosophy. So ideas are important even though they are merely ideas, and obviously most people who think in terms of the Mayavadi philosophy have never perceived anything such as Brahman. Brahman is merely an abstract concept to them. They certainly haven't realized anything, but the idea has such an influence on them that it blocks them from accepting the principles of bhakti. Therefore in order to help people who are influenced by these Mayavadi principles one goes to great lengths to explain why those ideas are wrong and what the right idea is. So it's a similar situation with physics. Since the time of Newton and Galileo and so forth physical science has been dominated by this concept that everything is occurring deterministically according to certain laws; and this really eliminates supernatural events from any possibility of actual reality. So people are very greatly influenced by this. So inevitably we are opposing those ideas simply by preaching Krishna Consciousness. However we do it, we’re opposing those ideas. Anyone who takes seriously to the worldview of Krsna Consciousness is essentially rejecting these mechanistic concepts of modern science, no matter how it comes about. So therefore it's helpful to understand systematically how these ideas are working. You see, one way to eliminate a set of ideas that oppose the philosophy of Krsna Consciousness is just to say, “Well that's wrong and we don't deal with that.” However some people may not find that to be very satisfactory. They want more of an explanation. So the explanation actually can be provided.
Now you asked about the 19th-century clockwork picture of the universe. Actually that is quite incompatible with the philosophy of Krsna Consciousness So if people are adhering to that picture of what is going on in nature, then to them Krsna Consciousness must be wrong inasmuch as they are adhering to that. So one would then have to say, “Well, that picture of things is wrong.” One way to do this is just say what is wrong and that's it. So it's perhaps helpful however to see how it is wrong and see to what extent laws of physics can be true and not contradict Krsna Consciousness. Because after all, we do have all these are technical devices, such as this video camera here, which operate very precisely according to these physical laws. This gives people a great deal of faith that these physical laws actually are something real. So it turns out that there is compatibility between the laws of physics and the basic principles of Krsna Consciousness, and it's therefore useful for people to understand this. Concerning the whole question of how complicated all this is, it is a fact that most of what you encounter in physical science, in things like physics, electronics, chemistry all these things, most of this is quite complicated. That's the nature of the subject matter. Many of the underlying ideas are very simple, but when you actually apply them in practical situations you find that things become very complicated. However, these complicated ideas have a strong impact on what people are led to believe. For example, in universities today people are taught that the mind is simply a manifestation of the brain. And what is the basic reason for that? It turns out, you know, that there is plenty of evidence that the mind is not just a manifestation of the brain. You can find a lot of evidence and in later discussions I’ll present some of that also. But because this contradicts basic physical principles or what scientists tend to think are the basic physical principles, they reject the idea that there is a mind which is distinct from the brain and is interacting with it. So these ideas have a very strong grip on people's thinking.
A: No it’s not. The reason is this: You have to follow out the implications of this clockwork picture, whether you apply that to the law of karma or to Western ideas of the universe as a clockwork. The implication there is first of all that there is all no question of the karmic actions and reactions being the fault or the responsibility of individuals, because, if everything is developing automatically by action and reaction, how then am I to blame for my actions? Or how are you to blame for your actions? If everything is developing according to certain laws, action leads to reaction and so forth in a chain which is unbroken, then there is no question of saying that anyone is at fault. Yet our philosophy is that we are responsible for actions and we have a responsibility to avoid sinful activities which lead to bad karmic consequences. However, if everything is developing automatically by action and reaction, there is no question of avoiding such things by some act of will. If I avoid sinful activities it’s merely because that's what the actions and reactions did in my case; they caused me to avoid sinful activities. And if I indulge in sinful activities, well, that's what the actions and reactions happen to do in my case. There’s no question of saying that I’m responsible or I’m not responsible. So the whole thing becomes completely impersonal. The idea of free will and responsibility is totally eliminated. In fact that’s one consequence of this scientific view. If you follow it out logically you find it totally eliminates the idea of free will and responsibility.
So what is the actual philosophy of Krsna Consciousness? The actual philosophy is that we do have freedom of choice. So the desire of the soul, and soul is transcendental, so the desire of the soul determines ultimately whether you engage in a certain course of activity or not. In the case of a devotee who decides to break the regulative principles, or else he doesn’t break the regular principles, why is it that that happens? Let’s say that he breaks them – why does he break them? If that's simply a result of action and reaction, action and reaction going back, back, back into the past, then how can you say he is in any way responsible? Or suppose he doesn't break them – how can you say that that’s any credit to him? If is just a matter of action and reaction, action and reaction so on, going back. So actually that's not our philosophy. Our philosophy is that it's due to the actual will of that spirit soul, not even to the thinking, willing, feeling of the material mind. Because of course, according to the Vedic literatures, manas, or the mind element, is something distinct from the gross physical body and it’s also distinct from the soul. It’s a subtle material element. And the function of the mind is thinking, feeling, and willing. But even the mind is basically a mechanical thing, the subtle mind, but even there that is not the source of the actual decision of the individual to do one thing or not to do it. The source is actually the spirit soul. The spirit soul actually makes a choice, and because of the spirit soul is making a certain choice, the energy of matter is diverted in one way or another.
Now then you can ask “Well, what about the other verses that say that we are not the doer?” There are so many verses like that. So the answer there is that in fact it is the Supersoul who is controlling the material energy and the Supersoul is doing that in accordance with the will of the soul. So Krsna says, “I don't take responsibility for your sinful activities even though I’m the one who is actually doing it,” because Krsna is actually directing the material energy so as to carry out someone sinful activities if that's what they want to do. But Krsna is doing that in accordance with the actual desire within that spirit soul. That spirit soul has made a decision, ”All right, I’m going to do it; I want to commit these sinful activities,” and then Krsna says, “All right, then that's what's going to happen”, and Krsna makes it happen in his expansion as Supersoul. But that is in accordance with the will of the individual, which is entirely spiritual. So what you have here is a link in which something entirely transcendental and spiritual, namely the will of that soul, is translated into some course of action in the material world in which a body does one thing as opposed to some other thing it could have done. So you have this link between the transcendental non-material element and the gross physical elements. So that's not possible according to the clockwork picture or according to the picture of karma as being simply action and reaction without any break.
Of course there are limits to our free will. Obviously, if you engage in a certain activity you may become conditioned in a certain way. As a result of that you lose your freedom. For example, suppose somebody begins taking heroin and becomes addicted to it. Then to a certain extent he loses his freedom because now he has to get heroin somehow. He's being forced. Or take an even simpler example: supposed you go to the airport, you buy a ticket, and you get on the plane. Once you’re on the plane you’re going to go to the destination of that plane. You have no choice unless you try and jump out, or something like that. So your freedom is then constrained. So it's not that we have absolute freedom to do anything. There are actions and reactions that do constrain us, but at the same time there are choices that one can make. So the idea that you have strictly a system of action and reaction does not agree with the philosophy of Krsna Consciousness
A: Well you see, most scientists will say that as scientists they’re not even concerned with God. Very often you hear the statement made that, “Well, a scientist may have a particular religious belief, but he doesn't allow that to interfere with the scientific considerations. As a scientist he is thinking in one way, and on the basis of some religion that he holds to, he’s thinking something about God, but these two things don't impinge upon one another in any serious way. They’re separate domains of thought. There is no meeting point between them. So therefore there is no conflict between science and religion.” Science deals with the way that matter behaves according to certain physical laws and so forth and religion, they will say, deals with values and spiritual considerations. Well, ultimately this point of view is not coherent, because in fact, religion deals also with matter right down to the last detail. Because matter is Krsna’s energy and if you try to maintain a philosophy similar to that of this Polkinghorne, for example, and of course his ideas are not unique to him, these are very common ideas, essentially what you do, as I was saying before, is you eliminate religion. You may have God but you've defined God and the role of God in nature in such a way that you've eliminated religion. You see, one form of atheism is to redefine God in such a way as to contradict important features of Krsna as He actually is. You may say you believe in God, but what god do you believe in? If you believe in something that is not at all adequate as far as the actual situation of Krsna and his relation with the jiva soul is concerned, then that idea of God is tantamount to really a form of atheism.
For example, as an extreme case, you can take the philosophy of Spinoza. According to Spinoza, you simply identify God with nature. So okay, God is nature. So we certainly believe in God because we believe in nature. God is all pervading because nature is all pervading. God is all-powerful, nature is all-powerful, because nature is everything that exists, so you can say many traditional things about God in the context of this philosophy. But actually this philosophy amounts to strict materialism because you’re saying nothing exists but nature, and if you like you can call it God. So that’s just one example of a form of atheism that’s a little bit more subtle than just saying, “I don't believe in God”. The Mayavadi philosophy is of course another example. The Mayavadi will say that, “Well, I believe in God and I understand God to be the impersonal Brahman beyond qualities, and form, and so forth. I don’t believe in a gross, anthropomorphic, naive conception as these followers of bhakti yoga do.” So once again that’s a concept of God but it leaves out very important features of God as he actually is. So it's tantamount to atheism.
A: It is. The karma-mimamsa philosophy is very similar to this deterministic philosophy of modern science. The idea there is that, well of course as Krsna was expounding this to Nanda Maharaja, He said that, “Well, even if there are demigods, they are bound to follow the rules of karma, they strictly follow those rules, so therefore it doesn't matter whether the demigods really exist or not –- the rules are all that count. So never mind the demigods. Just act properly according to the rules of karmic activity and you'll get the desired results according to the rules, and that's all that counts.” The demigods may exist or they may not. So it’s a similar thing. Polkinghorne philosophy amounts to saying that, “Yes, God is sustaining the laws of physics, but everything is really happening according to the laws of physics. So if you want to know what's going to happen just look at the laws of physics.” And someone else can say, “Well, I prefer not to say that God is sustaining the laws of physics. I would prefer to say that the laws of physics are simply the absolute basis of everything.” And as far as anything that anyone could ever hope to experience or observe is concerned, that's the same thing. You can say that God is sustaining them or you can say they’re just the ultimate basis. It makes no difference.
A: Yeah, well of course, even if you could do that, somebody could argue, “Well, we've just learned now that there are some other laws we hadn’t known of before.” And they could postulate the same basic framework that they had before, namely a certain set of laws. So basically what we’re dealing with here is a fundamental idea that has had a very strong grip on people's thinking over the last 200 years or so, and which should be replaced and in fact can be replaced, because the idea is not necessary as it turns out. This is the idea that the laws of nature are so constituted that there is no possibility of a supernatural intelligent controller, either on the level of the individual mind or the soul, the conscious self, or on the level of God or the Supersoul controlling the material energy. So we, of course, want to argue that these two things do exist, namely the individual soul and Supersoul, and that matter is being manipulated by the Supersoul and so forth. So the point then is that these ideas are actually perfectly feasible in terms of what we actually know about nature, whereas a certain set of misconceptions, as I was saying, based on a misinterpretation of this clockwork metaphor, have led people to think that this is not possible.
So I might just cover a few more points briefly. For example in universities in courses on philosophy, everyone will study Descartes inevitably. And of course Descartes thought a lot of these topics, and Descartes was one of the early proponents of the mechanistic view of nature. But he realised that this mechanistic view essentially banished the conscious mind from reality. Of course in Western thinking a distinction is not made between the soul and the mind. We make a distinction, so that’s a further refinement in one's thinking. So blurring over this distinction for the moment, Descartes realised that if you propose this mechanistic picture of nature you essentially eliminate the conscious self or the conscious mind from your picture of reality; and he realised that that really was not very good. So he proposed that there were two things actually called ‘res extensa’ and ‘res cogitans’, using Latin I guess. So the first of these was matter which he visualised in geometrical terms and this second entity, res cogitans, was the mind element, which possessed consciousness and according to Descartes, did not have the property of extension in space. It did not have geometrical characteristics. So then Descartes proposed that there is some interaction between this mind element and matter. However he was never able to clarify just how that interaction would work. The result was that subsequent philosophers and scientists rejected Descartes’s ideas completely. Of course they retain his ideas of matter. Basically today physicists deal with matter in the same essential way that Descartes did, namely in terms of mathematical systems. But they rejected his idea of a mind element. So if you study philosophy at a university you'll be told that because no one, including Descartes, could clarify how this mind element interacts with matter, therefore the whole theory is useless and should be cast out. So as a replacement for that, people propose that really the mind is simply a manifestation of the brain. To understand mind you just have to study how the nerve impulses are propagating through different synapses and so forth in the brain. And if you were able to understand this in sufficient detail you would know everything that there is to know about mind. So that just shows how this idea, or development of ideas, has had a very important influence on people's thinking.
Now actually one can understand, in terms of some of the ideas I outlined here, how the subtle mind element, and also the spirit soul on a transcendental level, interact with a gross physical body including the brain. That can be elaborated. It's interesting to note that if you look at the description of the separated elements in Bhagavad-gita you have earth, air, fire, water, and ether. And then you have mind, intelligence, and false ego. So mind, intelligence, and false ego are even more subtle than ether, and the soul is even more subtle than mind, intelligence, and false ego; and it’s completely transcendental. So what it amounts to is that the mind element and everything higher than that in subtlety is beyond space, because ether is space. So if you ask how does the mind element interact with the gross elements which are contained within this space, or ether, it’s through this subtle vibrational relationship of the kind that I was describing. So that can be looked at from the point of view, say, of the physicist or the neurophysiologist. The conclusion you come to then is that for the subtle mind to influence the brain some kind of vibration on the level of the fundamental ether, or space itself, is going to be influencing what the neurons are doing; and they in turn are going to be influencing this very subtle substrate. So if you examine this from the point of view that I was describing here you can see that is perfectly plausible that this sort of thing really does happen. So it's possible that you could have an interaction between the subtle mind and the gross elements of the body and of brain in particular. So it’s useful from the point of view of scientific thinking to know that this could be. Saying that it could be is not the same thing as proving that it really is so; but the very idea that it is possible is significant because that can set people to thinking along different lines than those that they pursued for many years.
It’s interesting, by the way, that I met a scientist from China, he’s at the University of Shanghai, I guess, in China, who was doing studies of mathematical models of the behaviour of what are called ‘glial cells’ within the brain. In the brain there are neurons and there’s another category of cells called ‘glial cells’ and basically people haven't known what their real role is in the brain. But he was pointing out that according to his models this phenomenon of deterministic chaos should occur in the glial cells; and he himself came to the conclusion that this allows for a nonphysical mind to control the brain. So he proposed that the nonphysical mind can be interacting with the brain through these phenomena occurring in the glial cells. So whether it happens in that particular way or not, that shows that these ideas can lead to the scientists accepting the possibility of a nonphysical mind.
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