Physics and Vedanta – 4/6

[An INTERVIEW BY Paula Marvelly – Sixteen searching  Questions probing the Depths of Physics and Advaita Vedanta – Responses from Dr. Ramesam Vemuri – 2011]

Part 4:  Superimposition in Quantum Physics and Advaita and The Role of The Mind:

Part – 1, Part – 3 

9.  How does the theory of superimposition in Quantum Physics relate to theory of superimposition in Advaita Vedanta?

The concept of superimposition in Quantum Physics is just that – a concept. It is a good example of what I am speaking about.

We devised the concept of superimposition to explain to ourselves some observed phenomena because the observed things did not seem to fit into the simple cause-effect relationship for which our mind is accustomed to. Let me explain a little.

Unlike in deterministic Classical Physics where there is always a single outcome, in probabilistic Quantum Physics, several possibilities of outcomes are possible or at least it so appears. If I leave my toothbrush in the bathroom, I may find it there only when I look for it next morning or half may be there or even a quarter, and some of it may be even be on the moon. All possibilities exist as per Quantum Physics. But I do normally find my toothbrush only where I happened to leave it. How should I explain this to myself if Quantum Physics is correct? So I reason it out that the toothbrush can exist in several places at the same time and when I actually look for it, it suddenly gathers itself to one place.

In fact it was Dr. Schrödinger who reined in diverse quantum phenomena into a single equation so that the physics of small particles is amenable for calculations of an outcome. To his surprise, he found that he could express an outcome using his equations only in terms of certain probabilities, like the way in which we find the weather predictions – 50 per cent chance of rain or storm or whatever.

Half in ridicule, he designed a thought experiment wherein a cat locked up in a box could be dead or alive, depending upon a random event of the release of a poisonous gas. You will not naturally know whether the cat is dead or alive until you open up the box and see. Before opening the box, it could be a dead cat or a living cat sitting there in the box. This thought experiment is famously known as Schrodinger’s Cat.

So the cat before opening the box could be in two states and our opening and looking will show up only one of the states. These two states are supposed to be occurring together, superimposed, at the same time. An electron can have infinite states superimposed, its behaviour finally settling down to only one state when observed or measured.

The superimposition in Advaita, though undoubtedly it is also a concept, has totally a different connotation to my mind.

The superimposition in Advaita refers to a defective worldview. That is to say, instead of perceiving what exactly is present out there, we have a mistaken view of what is there. The famous example is the mistaken view of a rope to be a snake under dim light. What is there is only a rope. Rope is the reality. But we see a snake, which is illusory, which truly does not exist. Advaitins explain this as the superimposition of a snake on the rope. What truly ontologically exists there is Brahman, or a nameless tat, but we see a world.

Whereas Quantum Physics has no clue how to find out what exactly is there when an electron appears to be in several superimposed states, Advaita offers a way to arrive at the Truth of what exactly exists, i.e. to see the rope instead of the snake. The technique offered by Advaita is called apavAda. It consists of a step-by-step negation or sublation, through repeated questioning and negating each stage as neti, neti, not this, not this, until no more negation is possible. Whatever is the remnant, the residual, That is Brahman.

10.  So how does the mind function in our understanding of the universe?

The peculiar thing about the mind is that it is never capable of knowing what is ‘out there’. We never realize this limitation of the mind!  We take it for granted that what we observe is wholesome and real. But that is NOT true!

The mind after all depends on the five senses to get information from the external world. The five senses are like instruments that the mind puts to use. These instruments are not designed to receive signals continuously. If a signal bombards them continuously, they become insensitive to it and ignore it totally. The technical name for this is referred to as ‘adaptation by the brain cells’. They behave as if there is no signal at all reaching them!

Secondly, often times it so happens that incomplete information is gathered by these senses or there are gaps in the information received by them. The brain fills these gaps with data in order to present a continuous stream of information. This filler information could be correct or incorrect.

Still more surprising is the fact that we do not often see what exactly is out there. We anticipate a thing and continuously go on correcting the anticipation by the sensory signal received through the senses. That is to say we tend to see our expectation. In other words, we see things even before we really perceive what exactly is out there!

I expect that the effect of a particular action I take will have a certain limited range of influence. I cannot expect that if I change the spin of an electron here, its long lost friend now existing, say, in the Andromeda galaxy should be affected. But in some observations, I do see convincingly that it does get affected. What to do? So a brilliant chap talks of hidden variables; another an implicate order connecting all electrons and imagines advanced waves of information reaching the other electron. Some other man disputes it using a different logic. In the meanwhile, ordinary folk become confused and confounded.

So the first thing to do is to examine and re-examine our devices and their limitations before we embark on the information gathered by these apparatus – in our case the mind, the only tool at our disposal.

A question may be raised as to why our mind behaves the way it does, almost misleading us and showing a false picture of the world. That is because you are putting the mind to a job for which it is not really meant or trained. Just like any other body part of ours, mind is there essentially to protect the body-organism. So it learned some tricks to give instructions to the other organs for quickly reacting to save the body in case of threats. It is not trained to indefinitely wait for the collection of full data followed by a thorough evaluation of the information collected and then make a completely rational decision. It has to act quickly to save the organism from a threat based even on incomplete and partial data.

One of the best methods to save oneself from a difficult situation, or equally when one has to exploit an opportunity for one’s own benefit, is to be able to foresee or at least anticipate what is going to happen in the near future. This knowledge will obviously improve our preparedness when we face the actual situation.

Hence our brain has acquired over millennia of years of evolution an ability to discover patterns of occurrence even in purely unrelated events. This is a life-saving mechanism. Let me illustrate this with an example. Suppose you see a few irregular yellow patches in a bush. This pattern of yellow patches may belong to a tiger. Well, run to save yourself. Later on you may discover that the yellow patches were not that of a tiger. It doesn’t matter; you have not harmed yourself, except mockery maybe by a friend. But suppose in the very first instance you did not run and it really happens to be a tiger. You would have become its dinner! Statistically, such a cautious approach is called to err on the side of a false positive, which is much safer. Our brain developed to be wary of many such false positives. We tend to see a ghost where there is none.

Another thing is the brain, which is the seat of the mind, is a highly energy-expensive organ. The more the brain is kept in usage, the more energy it needs. The brain alone – only about two per cent of your body weight – consumes 20 percent of the energy you get from your food. The rest of the whole body – 98 percent – has to make do with the balance of 80 percent.

So the brain is also designed to conserve energy by developing short cuts for decision making. This was well suited for our great-great ancestors for their life in the wilderness, but we find it inconvenient in the present day of secure living conditions.  Our environment has changed much faster than our brain’s way of functioning. In effect, it is like you are trying to get a stereophonic effect using an old phonograph machine.

The mind serves a limited purpose; let it do its job of protecting the body-organism.  Mind is nothing but what the brain does. It is very much like the stomach extracting the energy from food gathered from outside and providing it to all the parts of the body. Instead of that, some people think that there is an animal called mind. They postulate that it is made of some subtle mind stuff, imagine mental sheaths and mental worlds and so on, wherein it functions. They attribute some ethereal character to it.

Under the influence of such handed-down knowledge embedded in us, we claim ownership of the mind and try to fictitiously imagine we are its controllers. Thereby we end up tying ourselves in knots. Traditional Advaitins cannot escape their responsibility in the spread of this sort of false imagination.

 (To Continue … Part 5:  End of the Universe, Thought and Meditation)