Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Science of the unverifiable

Kuldip Dhiman

The Realm of Supraphysics: Mind, Energy and Matter in the Light of the Vedas
by Rishi Kumar Mishra. Rupa & Co in association with Brahma Vidya Kendra. Rs 695. Pages 370.

The Realm of Supraphysics: Mind, Energy and Matter in the Light of the VedasAt the beginning of the last century, Lord Kelvin remarked rather prematurely: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement." The objective methods of classical physics, it was believed, were capable of explaining all the remaining mysteries of nature. However, no sooner had he made this tall claim than the ground was swept under his feet with new discoveries made in the realm of subatomic particles. Quantum mechanics had shaken the objectivity and certainty of the Cartesian-Newtonian world view because the observer was equally important in explaining the workings of the subatomic world. There were limits to classical physics after all!

These new developments were lapped up by all sorts of people, not to support Quantum mechanics but to justify their own brand of belief or theology. There were many who tried to explain ancient knowledge by borrowing the Quantum metaphor.

Rishi Kumar Mishra's The Realm of Supraphysics is a book that follows a similar line of argument: Modern science has its uses, but for learning the deeper truths about reality, one must go beyond science. The answer is not physics but supraphysics, a term coined by the author. We ought to go back to the roots, he says, and profit from the eternal truth as explained in the ancient texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads.

But why resort to physics in order to explain something that is not within its scope. Mishra writes, "We use the idioms of modern science in order to help our readers discover the principles enunciated by the seer- scientists of the Vedas. We take recourse to physics to guide readers into the realm of supraphysics." Fair enough, but does it help?

What is supraphysics anyway? Is it a new name for metaphysics. No, says Mishra. "Supraphysical energy," according to the him, "belongs neither to the realm of metaphysics or philosophy nor superstition, and should not be treated as something 'divine' — except insofar as those who believe in god treat everything (including material objects) as divine blessings. . . . Supraphysical energy is directly linked to and impacts upon potential, kinetic, thermal, electrical, chemical, nuclear and various other forms of energy."

Mishra then goes on to point out that traditional Indian texts are not properly understood because most of them were mistranslated by Western scholars, sometimes because of their own ignorance of Sanskrit, sometimes because of lack of cultural understanding, and sometimes a bit on purpose. For instance, the Sanskrit words mana, prana and wak are usually translated as mind, energy and matter. Mishra argues, "Mind, energy and matter belong to the physical domain, while mana, prana and wak belong to the supraphysical domain. They simply become discernible to us as mind, energy and matter. A study of these three terms will thus greatly assist an ardent enquirer to better understand the realm of supraphysics." Then again, pashu is translated as animal, but according to the writer, it is a supraphysical energy which circulates in the region between the earth and the sun.

One might agree with Mishra that rishis of yore, perhaps, showed interesting insights into deep-rooted epistemological and ontological issues, but did they get everything right? Most of the arguments the writer gives against modern science are not supported by any proof. We have to believe them because the ancient texts say so or the author says so. While all that is said in the book might be true, but in these modern days one needs a better reason to believe a concept than an appeal to scriptural authority. Sure the author gives us scientific-looking diagrams, as the one on page 84, showing how supraphysical energies radiate from the earth to the sun. But in absence of any method of verifying the claim, they serve no purpose. An imaginative person could come up with hundreds of such diagrams as neo-creationists do.

Besides, these ancient theories good though they might be for settling our inner doubts, are useless in practical terms because their predictive power is zero. As a result, we have no good reason for accepting one ancient system over the other. Since these systems cannot be falsified as Karl Popper showed us, one system is as good as the other. For example, in the ancient systems it was believed that all matter was composed of five basic elements: prithvi, Jala Agni, Wayu and Akasha. All this is interesting, but it does not help us in any practical sense as saying that water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. It makes no difference to the predictive power of this theory whether we say matter consists of five elements or four or twenty. True, one cannot use the methods of natural sciences to explain what is beyond them, but then the onus is on the author to suggest to us some methodology by which we could accept or reject his views.

Such books pitch physics against ancient Indian thought as if traditional Indian knowledge was a unified whole. The Indian system is not a monolithic block; there are many opposing schisms within it. We have the Dwaitins, the Adwaitins, the Charvakas, the Nyaya Vaishesikas, the Samkhyas, the Buddhists, the Jains and so on. To a casual observer, they all look similar, but they certainly have differences. So Mishra, first of all, should have made it clear from the beginning which particular school of Indian thought he belongs to, and then he should have given us a method, a supraphysical method.

Furthermore, all the arguments are against physics as it was known a hundred years ago. Things have changed since. And even if quantum mechanics has shaken the foundations of physics, it does not automatically prove that the ancient systems are right in every aspect.

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