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Einstein from a Holistic Perspective

By ananthu at June 4, 2005 12:45 AM

The year 2005 has been declared 'The International Year of Physics' by the United Nations. As you must be knowing, this is because Albert Einstein published his famous paper on the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. Actually, Einstein did more than that – in the same year, in fact, in the same journal, he wrote two other papers which made substantial contributions to the two other theories which revolutionized Physics in the 20th Century– namely, Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics.

But unlike Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics, which have evolved as the result of the contributions of many other leading physicists as well (such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schroedinger), the Theory of Relativity has been almost exclusively the work of Einstein – first in the form of the Special Theory, and later in the form of the General Theory, which was published in 1915. Einstein's contributions have been so special that Germany, the country that expelled him, is now re-claiming him as a national hero!

But what does all this have to do with the common man? Why has the UN declared 1905 as the 'International Year of Physics'? And why is this topic figuring in our correspondence with members of the Navadarshanam Study Circle?

In the Times of India dated March 28, 2005, Sudheendra Kulkarni touches on the answers to these questions through an article titled "Unity between the Material & Mystical". He states:

"For a scientist whose theories facilitated making of the nuclear bomb, Einstein was a crusader for world peace. A courageous champion of the ideals of socialism, he held that the salvation for humanity lay in the path shown by Mahatma Gandhi. A portrait of the Mahatma adorned his modest two-storied house at Princeton University. In short, the significance of the 'UN Year of Physics' goes beyond the magic of a famous 1905 equation. It is a call to revisit Einstein in totality."

Taking a cue from the above call to 'revisit Einstein in totality', I thought members of Navadarshanam's Study Circle may be interested in taking a look at Einstein from a perspective not generally dealt with in our classrooms – a scientist who arrived at his fundamental laws not by conducting experiments in a physical laboratory, but by searching for these Laws deep within himself. As he told his son-in-law Marianogg:

"The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest mainspring of scientific research...

"During that vision, in a clarified and unified view of the universe, I saw the pattern and integration of all things.

"And that is when peace came, and that is when conviction came, and with these things came an almighty calm that nothing could ever shake again…"

What did Einstein mean by the term cosmic religious experience? The term religion, in its original connotation, means re+legio – Latin for 'that which unites with the source'. So, Einstein was referring to that experience which united him with the entire cosmos!

How does one get united with the entire cosmos? Einstein himself has put forward the following two mental conditions as prerequisites for this experience:

1. The individual must feel the 'futility of human desires and aims'.

2. Existence bound by the narrow self must impress him as 'a sort of prison' from which he wants to get liberated.

But the above are only prerequisites, the starting point. A great struggle lies ahead for anyone who wants to actually experience this vision. In the words of his son-in-law Marionogg:

"He told me that one day he had gone to bed in a state of discouragement so profound that no argument could put it to an end. He said:

'When one reaches despair, nothing can help anymore, neither hours of work nor past success, nothing. All confidence disappears. It's over, I told myself, everything is useless. I haven't obtained any results…. And that's when the thing came about.'

"With infinite precision, the universe and its secret unity of measure, structure, distance, time and space, such a monumental puzzle, was slowly reconstructed in Einstein's mind. And suddenly, as if printed by a giant printer, the immense map of the universe clearly unfolded itself in front of him in a dazzling vision. That is when he came to a sense of peace."

Two important points are worth noting from Marionogg's description of how Einstein arrived at his Theory of Relativity. One: We usually imagine that all great scientists arrive at their theories from an analysis of 'facts' revealed in experiments conducted in our physical laboratories. But Einstein did not do so – and this is true of other great scientists as well. His laboratory was inside himself. As he once said," The kind of work I do can be done anywhere". Or, as he jokingly told his doctor friend, Paulette Brubacher, when she asked him where his laboratory was, "Here", pointing to his breast pocket that contained his pen.

The other point worth noting is that, as Einstein's desperation demonstrated, results of researches done within oneself are much, much harder to come by than those conducted in our physical laboratories. The reason – it demands a discarding of our sense of 'I-ness', of all achievement orientation. See how closely Einstein's description of what he went through resembles the description given by Thomas Merton, the well-known Catholic priest, of what he experienced during his journey with the Buddhist techniques of meditation:

"One cannot really attain enlightenment unless pressed to the limit… Forced to face and to reject his most cherished illusions, driven almost to despair, he abandons all false hopes and makes a breakthrough into a complete humility and detachment."

Humility and detachment are the stepping stones to any real mystical experience, which is what makes it so difficult to attain. Humility here should not be confused with self-humiliation, as Dag Hammerskjold, the former Secretary General of the United Nations (who also had very mystical leanings) has explained:

"Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. The self is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything."

So, in order to move towards becoming one with the entire cosmos, one first has to become nothing, 'reduce oneself to a cipher', as Mahatma Gandhi has explained in his autobiography. The result is 'en+light+enment', the ability to see the Universe in a different light, from a totally self-less perspective. The great historian Arnold Toynbee has explained the goal in the following words:

"to see the Universe as it is in the sight of God, instead of seeing it with the distorted vision of one of God's self-centred creatures".

It is in the above sense that we have to understand Einstein's famous statement:

"I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details".

Einstein saw this quest for God through the mystical process as the foundation of all true science:

"The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness."

He specified the path to the above goals in the following words:

"Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free human beings, behold it in wonder, there we enter the realm of art and science. If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose inter-relationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art."

The first step, the essential pre-requisite, is getting rid of all desires, for all desires (including the 'good' ones) emanate from the narrow and false sense of 'self' as distinct from the 'other'. This is the process of purifying the mind, of substituting selfishness or duality by selflessness or love. Then comes the most frustrating period of 'being driven almost to despair' by being 'forced to face and to reject his most cherished illusions'. It is only by this exceedingly difficult process of getting rid of all self-centred thoughts and desires that we become truly self-less. This enables us to see the world in its true light – where the unity of all is revealed – rather than our present 'distorted vision of one of God's self-centred creatures', as Toynbee had put it. And then finally comes the en-light-en-ment, the Vision by which one sees oneself as united with the rest of creation. Einstein has formulated a most interesting definition of the human being based on these concepts:

"A human being is part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."

A most interesting definition of a human being, indeed! Whoever could have imagined that this would come out of the pen of a scientist? Yet, there is a link, and a very important one at that, between Einstein's science and the above definition. It flows from the insight that Einstein had received during his Vision into the true nature of reality, especially of Space and Time. He realized that the 'flow' of time we experience at this physical level of existence is actually an illusion:

"For a convinced physicist, the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, though a stubborn one."

This illusion is the direct result of our identification with the physical body, which makes us feel a 'part [rather than the whole] of the Universe, a part limited in space and time' (i.e., we are mortal beings with very limited perception of the goings-on in the universe). This limitation is actually a 'delusion of our consciousness', caused because of our love being limited to the narrow self. If only we can extend our love from the part to the whole, we become the whole. This is the method of attaining the cosmic religious experience and, according to Einstein, the very purpose of human existence.

Other scientists who made important contributions to 20th Century physics have said much the same thing, as for instance:

"As it is with light and electricity, so it may be with life: the phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time while in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may all be members of one body." –James Jeans.

Einstein emphasized the importance of the above for the human being in general, and the scientist in particular, by declaring:

"The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self."

Once when he was seriously ill, and was asked whether he was afraid of death, he replied:

"I feel such a sense of solidarity with all living things that it does not matter to me where the individual begins and ends. There is nothing in the world I cannot dispense with at a moment's notice."

The above attitude to life is an essential prerequisite to a proper understanding of the Theory of Relativity, especially a grasp of the Vision that gave rise to the Theory. Unfortunately, our schools and universities deal only with the mathematics involved, which tells us that Space and Time are not really independent entities, but does not provide us the insights to see how this is actually the case.

Mathematics, as Einstein has explained, is only a language – which 'traces out what we behold and experience' through the language of logic. Devoid of the Vision, he warned us, it becomes empty of reality:

"Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience – and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty of reality."

Arthur Eddington, the experimental physicist of great renown whose work 'confirmed' Einstein's General Theory, had the same warning for us:

"And so in its actual procedure physics studies not these inscrutable qualities [of the physical world] but pointer-readings which we can observe. The readings, it is true, reflect the fluctuations of the world-qualities; but our exact knowledge is of the readings, not of the qualities. The former have as much resemblance to the latter as a telephone number has to a subscriber."

Therefore, when Einstein was asked if everything could ultimately be explained in scientific terms, he replied:

"yes, that is conceivable, but it would make no sense. It would be as if one were to reproduce Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the form of an air pressure curve."

He even went a step further, declaring:

"As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

And again:

"What applies to jokes, I suppose, also applies to pictures and to plays. I think they should not smell of a logical scheme, but of a delicious fragment of life, scintillating with various colours according to the position of the beholder. If one wants to get away from this vagueness one must take up mathematics. And even then one reaches one's aim only by becoming completely insubstantial under the dissecting knife of clarity. Living matter and clarity are opposites – they run away from each other. We are now experiencing this rather tragically in physics."

Despite Einstein's warning contained above, modern science has continued to stress logic at the cost of Vision. But, recently, there are signs that this may be changing. The book, 'Looking Glass Universe' by Briggs and Peat, documents these changes, starting with the work of David Bohm, a leading physicist whose work Einstein had much appreciated. They put across the sweeping nature of the changes that may presage these developments in the following words:

"Science and its sister, technology, are full of surprises – so many surprises it's difficult to be surprised anymore. Black holes, genetic engineering, dust-sized computer chips – what next? We're ready for anything. The theories and artifacts of science have long since become firmly established on our landscape, spreading and changing like a city's skyline. We've all become inhabitants in this city. Around us new structures rise, re-development projects take place as discoveries come and go. We take it in, rather jaded by this fast-paced and dazzling environment.

"But lately, faintly, there has been a rumbling of the ground, a change in the light – mysterious signs. Strange reports reach us from people who have been working beneath the ground, in the deepest structures of the city, that they may have uncovered something, stirred something, which could drastically change the city and all those who inhabit it."

Briggs and Peat then go on to give us a picture of how our understanding of the world we inhabit, and, along with it, the way we live, may begin to change as a result of the work of the 'looking glass scientists', beginning with David Bohm. Not only scientists, but even others, for, as Einstein emphasized:

"Legend pretends that science is only for men of science, but as it is a part of truth, it must exist for everyone."

This truth, and the glory of it, is what the 'International Year of Physics' should be celebrating. The immortal words of Louis Pasteur tells us how we can do so:

"The Greeks bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word 'enthusiasm' – 'en+theos', a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite."

The above quote demonstrates to us that the link between science, the notion of infinity (i.e., the limitations of Space and Time), and God was not first formulated by Einstein, but has been a recurring theme in the work of many of the world's great scientists. Unfortunately, because of the materialistic and reductionistic atmosphere in which we are currently living, we have glossed over these aspects of the work of the great scientists – and confined ourselves to making nuclear bombs from the equations they left behind!. Maybe we can all make good use of this 'International Year of Physics' in 2005 by reminding ourselves of the Great Truths they had elucidated.