Indian philosophy: A growing relationship with cosmology & physics?


EXCERPT: . . . Mentioning spiritual texts in the same breath as physics is not fashionable; the danger is you will come over as both a wannabe guru and a flaky physicist. [Andrei] Linde recalls his reticence before the Hamburg meeting: ‘I was so scared about that, about talking to them about reality, because this is the least understood thing about quantum mechanics and quantum cosmology.’ Born in Moscow when Russia was still in the Soviet Union and religiosity was taboo, Linde had no formal religious upbringing. Today he identifies as an atheist, albeit one who grew up with a taste for big theological questions, voraciously reading both philosophy texts and science fiction for thoughts about the nature of the self and consciousness. ‘The climate was to ignore religion, so I was, with my strange philosophy, the most religious person around,’ Linde says, laughing.

[...] Anyone who has met Linde will know that he is a man with great a passion for his physics [...] As a young researcher in Russia, he hit a temporary intellectual roadblock with the development of inflation theory [...] While struggling with the mathematics, before eventually solving the conundrum, he fell into a funk. It was during this year of emotional frustration that he turned to the Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy that emphasises oneness between the self and the Universe.

‘I should not jump into Indian philosophy, which I am not exactly an expert in,’ says Linde, cautiously. Rather than making stark pronouncements about physics based on the readings of his youth, he simply wants to point out the similarities that struck him between the problem of vanishing time arising from the Wheeler-DeWitt equation and the Indian conception of time. In contrast to Judeo-Christian-Islamic notions of a God as a superior being – crudely caricatured as ‘a man with a beard’, notes Linde, or perhaps thought of as a powerful, but external, force of nature – there is the more Eastern abstraction of God as absolute perfection encompassing everything. This perfection cannot change in time because if it did, then it would either have to have been less perfect in the past, or become less perfect in the future.

‘And then you think about the wavefunction of the Universe, which is absolute perfection, which does not depend on time, which embeds everything – everything including observers,’ says Linde. Indian philosophers two millennia ago were faced with the same paradox as modern physicists: how can an unchanging reality hold within it observers that undergo change? The ancient philosophers’ solution, Linde notes, is that time ticks for humans because we have ‘cut ourselves out from God’. Once we do so, then from our individual perspective, experiencing reality as a separate being, the rest of the Universe starts to tick, evolving in time relative to each human being as an observer.

So far, so mystical. But, perhaps surprisingly, a similar solution to the problem of time in physics was proposed in 1983 by one of Hawking’s students and later collaborator, Don Page, now at the University of Alberta in Canada – without any consideration of Hindu teachings. Page and his colleague Bill Wootters of Williams College in Massachusetts, turned instead to a well-established quantum phenomenon known as ‘entanglement’, which has been demonstrated many times in the lab. Here, the very laws of quantum physics hold that some particles are connected together no matter how far they are pulled apart; indeed, in experiment after experiment, measurements carried out on one always instantaneously influences the properties of its entangled mate.

Page and Wootters pondered what would happen if you took the whole unchanging Universe and chopped it into two entangled pieces. They calculated that an observer, a human consciousness, say, or maybe even an inanimate recording device, sitting in one entangled part would monitor the other part of the Universe evolving relative to its own. The crucial insight was that the presence of an observer on one side starts the clock running on the other side. ‘How do you know that people are dying and being born? You first look at them,’ says Linde, slapping his hand to his knee, for emphasis. ‘That is the key: there must be somebody who looks.’

Importantly, Page and Wootters calculated that when both divided parts of the Universe are monitored in conjunction by some imagined superobserver, the evolution within the individual parts should counterbalance, so that from an external god’s-eye view there would be no evolution in the cosmos as a whole. The wavefunction of the entire Universe would remain timeless, just as DeWitt had predicted, solving the problem of how an unchanging Universe can house time.

Though this was just a mathematical speculation, it has since been tested in the lab, in an extremely pared-down version of the Universe, containing a meagre two particles – not a complex enough model system for anything too exciting to happen, perhaps, but with just enough pieces to test the theoretical claim. In 2013, the quantum physicist Marco Genovese at the Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica in Italy and colleagues used two photons to represent the two sides of a divided microcosmos. The photons were both polarised, meaning that each one vibrated along its length. The team entangled the pair of photons in such a way that, if the polarisation of the first photon was measured to be vibrating up and down, its entangled partner would instantaneously be forced to vibrate from side to side.

The photons also served as mini clocks because, in addition to being polarised, they also each literally rotated at a constant rate, like the hands on a watch. The team could thus, in principle, measure how time passed within each half – if time did indeed pass – by monitoring how far the photon in that half had rotated. Technically, the act of measuring one photon’s rotation causes the experimenters to become entangled with it themselves, so in essence the physicists then became part of the first photon’s side of the micro-Universe. From this vantage point, they could then monitor how the second photon – the second half of the Universe – evolved, by measuring how far it had rotated, relative to the first photon. By doing this, the team was able to confirm one part of Page and Wootters’s proposition, that if you are housed within one part of the Universe, you will be able to view changes in the other half.

The trick was then to repeat the experiment, but this time from the god’s-eye viewpoint that remained external to both halves of the microcosmos, or both photons. In that case, the team could not allow themselves to become entangled with either photon; they were allowed only to measure the joint state of both photons, taken together as a pair. That meant that they could no longer see any relative rotation between the two photons, or the passage of time. All they could do was confirm that the two photons were permanently polarised in opposing directions – up-and-down and side-to-side – with this eternal embrace never changing. Research confirmed that when viewed from outside, their two-photon Universe, as a whole, was frozen in time.

‘So as long as you do not have an observer, the arrow of time doesn’t exist, and the paradox doesn’t exist,’ Linde explains. ‘But as soon as you have an observer, the Universe becomes alive. This duality between you and the Universe is part of the whole package.’ Though not a religious man, this has inspired him to riff about the fate of people after death; perhaps, as some non-Western philosophies suggest, their individual consciousnesses become unified with the wholeness of the Universe, once more.

Nobody is suggesting that progress in physics will be found by mining ancient Hindu scriptures directly for inspiration. Nor, indeed, that scholars of the Advaita Vedanta had some privileged insight into scientific truths. Yet, curious resonances between the philosophical ideas read in one’s youth, and theoretical speculations that arise from the physics of today can sometimes make the latter seem more compelling. Perhaps that is why Linde was more intuitively drawn to Page and Wootters’s solution to the problem of time than to Hawking’s.

More so than Linde, [Abhay ] Ashtekar has spent many years practising meditation, and he is unabashed about the interplay between his scientific thinking and his spirituality – the parallels between his two worlds are poetic and profound. With colleagues, he has proposed an alternative to the conventional picture, in which time is created in the explosion of the Big Bang, arguing instead that the cosmos is eternal, and removing the need for those pesky infinitely small and dense singularities that physicists have spent decades struggling to explain. But he has also thought about ways to bring the two modes of thought – spiritual and scientific – together more explicitly, when considering the nature of consciousness.

[...] Ashtekar’s passion for understanding the ‘inner world’ of consciousness, as well as the external physical world, continued when he moved to the US in the 1970s. While enrolled in graduate study in physics at the University of Texas in Austin, Ashtekar also took a year of classes with the renowned Indian philosopher Raja Rao, debating the merits of Hinduism compared with Buddhism. Eventually, his desire to unravel Einstein’s spacetime fabric won over, and took him to the University of Chicago, to study general relativity with the physicist Robert Geroch, an expert on singularities.

For Ashtekar, it was not enough to just accept that the Universe is pervaded by a four-dimensional spacetime fabric. He wanted to know how that fabric was stitched together, believing that the answer held the key to explaining how general relativity and quantum theory can come together on the tiniest scales. Developed with others – most notably the physicists Carlo Rovelli of the Centre de Physique Théorique in France, and Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada – Ashtekar’s speculative theory is known as ‘loop quantum gravity’ and, as he explained to me at his office at Penn State, sounds almost too trivial to be true. Ashtekar was wearing a grey shirt and started to pull at its threads to illustrate his thinking. He remarked that when it is viewed from afar, the shirt appears to be cut from one continuous smooth material; viewed up close, however, you can see the threads from which it is woven. Similarly, he argues that if we had powerful enough microscopes to zoom in on Einstein’s fabric, we would see that it is knitted together from ‘loops’ – hypothetical threads of energy that manifest through quantum processes.

There’s precedent for the idea that such threads could pop from seemingly nowhere in conventional physics. For instance, physicists have a quantum description for light, which states that light particles, or photons, are actually excited bundles of energy that rise up from a background electromagnetic field – like water waves swelling up from an otherwise still ocean. What’s more, the unpredictability of quantum theory also extends to the seemingly empty vacuum, so you can never say with certainty that is it truly empty. That enables pairs of ‘virtual photons’ to be created fleetingly from apparently empty space, before they recombine and disappear. Ashtekar’s proposed loops take these established quantum concepts a step further, spontaneously manifesting as agitations of a hypothetical field of ‘quantum geometry’, which he posits exists everywhere, eternally. These loops then link together to create a web that weaves together spacetime.

At first, it might seem as if he has just replaced one mysterious fabric that pervades the Universe – Einstein’s spacetime – with an equally enigmatic web of quantum geometry and loops. But Ashtekar’s theory has another nifty feature: it demarcates a minimum loop size below which the loops cannot knit together. That, in turn, sets a minimum size below which spacetime, itself woven from loops, cannot be squeezed. This means that, according to the loop quantum gravity picture, the Universe could never have been squashed into a tiny singularity, even at its birth.

To find out what might have happened at the Big Bang, according to his loopy framework, Ashtekar and colleagues created a computer simulation of the Universe and then wound the clock back roughly 13 billion years, to the time when the Big Bang is thought to have occurred. At first, things proceeded in the conventional way: as time reversed, the cosmos became smaller and smaller. But just before reaching the point where conventional physics puts the Big Bang’s infinitely small singularity, the cosmos shrunk down to a certain minuscule but finite size, and then began to expand outwards again. Ashtekar argues that this indicates that our cosmos had no beginning – no birth at a Big Bang singularity – but instead has always existed. At some point, in the past, he says, the cosmos contracted, and then bounced outwards again, and we now live in that expanding phase.

Ashtekar says that the parallels between his theory of loops and the ancient scriptures – both describing a universe cycled through phases of creation and destruction – are merely coincidental, if pleasingly consonant. But there are other areas where he makes more explicit links between his physics and spirituality.

Over the past decade or so, Ashtekar has become a more committed adherent of Buddhism; following the Vipassana school, he has taken part in intense 10-day meditations, during which he is banned from speaking and reading. Isolated from the world, he strives to reach a state of consciousness ‘beyond thought’, challenging the intellectual focus and diligence of the physicist. ‘From my intellectual life I had the inner pride of being able to concentrate for hours,’ he says. ‘When I am working on something, I completely lose track, sometimes to my detriment.’ But this paled against the strength of mind needed to sustain deep meditation. Ashtekar felt like a helpless child. ‘They do say that the first time you do it, it is like “surgery for the mind”, and it does have very, very deep cleansing effect on your consciousness,’ he says.

Inspired by his meditative practice, Ashtekar is training a scientific eye on other aspects of Buddhist philosophy. The practice teaches of a cycle of personal reincarnation broken by reaching enlightenment, or nirvana. Ashtekar has been pondering whether it might be possible to develop a physical model of consciousness that chimes with this. His viewpoint – similar to the concepts espoused by the Advaita Vedanta school that Linde was fascinated by – is that there is a universal field of consciousness, embedding our individual selves.

Harking back again to quantum physical description of photons as excitations of an electromagnetic field, and his own proposal that loops are lumps of energy thrown up from a background sea of quantum geometry, Ashtekar describes our individual consciousnesses as agitations in this communal ocean. As we experience the daily trials of life as well as profound suffering, we are pulled from this calm background like angry turbulent waves. Meditation, Ashtekar posits, quiets our minds, enabling us to sink back into a still sea. ‘Perhaps nirvana is just the ground energy state’ – the lowest energy state – ‘of this consciousness field,’ Ashtekar speculates.

This is not simply a metaphor for Ashtekar, but a scientific proposal, though one that he has yet to rigorously develop and for which there is, for now at least, no means to test. This does not dismay Ashtekar, who points out that way back in 1916 Einstein predicted that ripples in his spacetime fabric could potentially be observed. It took another century for physicists to detect these ripples, or gravitational waves, which were set off when two black holes collided long ago.

The best and most convincing proof, Ashtekar argues, will not come from a lab test, but from people trying deep meditation for themselves. The effects can be so profound, he says, they can pull you deep into the inner world, till you lose touch with the external world. ‘You lose your motivation, or the fire in your belly,’ Ashtekar says. Fearing that he might inadvertently destroy his drive to study physics, Ashtekar now just dips into meditation briefly at times of stress, to bring him ‘basic joy’.

Both Ashtekar and Linde concede that many scientists will raise their eyebrows at attempts to bring together science and spirituality, worrying about the dangers of dragging physics into mysticism. Scholars of non-Western philosophy will be equally wary about the merits of picking and choosing which aspects of their teachings to use as a lens through which to view cosmology. Yet spiritual lessons do sometimes inform the speculative ideas to which physicists might be drawn intuitively. When faced with rival physical theories, instinct can play a role in deciding which sits better with your taste, even for professional scientists. As Linde puts it, the theories that you pursue with a passion are not the ones that seem right based merely on mathematical grounds, but must also ‘tell something to your heart’.


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