When probing the workings of the universe, science fixates its eye on the future. Its mind whirs with progress. Science is the incremental accumulation of knowledge: a house of a thousand bricks, where each layer is laid upon the last. It is a method of knowing whereby truths can be falsified, and knowledge is only maintained through proof.
Strange then, it may seem to many, the claims that ancient Hindu texts should have anything to say about science. Let alone Quantum Mechanics.
In the West, the ties with religion which had begun to fray with Galileo have, at present, been cut. Religion, it is alleged, makes claims without proof. It knows things it could not possibly know. To believe is an act of faith.
In the East, the waters are murkier.
Our story begins with Erwin Schrodinger, one of the greatest physicists in a century of the astounding. Aside from being amongst the principal minds behind quantum mechanics – and a Nobel Prize winner to boot – he was also a scholar of Eastern philosophical wisdom. In particular, Schrodinger, famed for his cat in a box thought experiment, was fascinated by the Vedanta and Upanishads.
Nor was Schrodinger alone. Another Nobel Laureate and founder of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr remarked, “I go into the Upanishads to ask questions.“
The Vedanta is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy and means “the end of The Vedas.” A lengthy collection of religious texts, The Vedas originated in ancient India. Composed in Sanskrit, these texts constitute the oldest body of Sanskrit literature, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Upanishads are key texts within the school, though the terms are often used interchangeably. The texts deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge (knowledge about existence and reality). It is in these texts that concepts of Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (soul or self) are established, with the connection between the two being explored.
So influential was the Upanishads, that the pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer called them “the most profitable and elevated reading which… is possible in the world.” Indeed, it helped spark Schrodinger’s most insightful works.
But what did Schrodinger see?
The universe is two in one. Two phenomena bound together. It is a wave, like those in the sea, and also a particle, like the sand on the beach. It is not one or the other; it is both. This was Schrodinger’s breath-taking insight.
For the layman, this connection can be mindboggling. How can it be both? Yet, a century of experimentation has confirmed the theory. Take light, for instance. It comes bundled up as the photon: a particle.
Fire them one by one through a slit, and you can see them hit a screen. Fire them in their thousands, and a pattern will form, just like water lapping through a harbor entrance, or undulations of sand in shallow water. Light is also a wave.
For Schrodinger, the two in one nature of matter and reality reflected the insights of the Vedas. “Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular,” he wrote, “all happenings are played in one universal consciousness, and there is no multiplicity of selves.” The Brahman – the world, consciousness, and our minds – were one and the same thing. Indeed, Eastern philosophers had described human life like waves, riding along the surface, only to crash upon the shore and return once more to the ocean.
It is the form of the wave that travels, not the wave itself. The image is not the material. The person and the universe are as indivisible as the particle and the wave. Writing in What is Life? Schrodinger reaffirms this understanding: “The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. This is entirely consistent with the Vedanta concept of All in One.”
For Schrodinger, quantum mechanics and the Vedic concepts of consciousness are compatible. The mind is something greater; it’s plurality of experiences, and physiological states is an illusion of a single unity.
Interestingly, a recent theory proposing a link between consciousness and quantum mechanics has gained ground. Orch-OR, “orchestrated objective reduction,” suggests that inside our cells, tiny quantum movements make up the workings of minds. Proposed by mathematician Roger Penrose and anaesthetist Stuart Hameroff, the theory has many detractors. However, the link to Schrodinger’s work and philosophy is of definite interest.
Whether there is any truth in the quantum connection, or it is just the fancies of a brilliant man remains unknown. In a world stripped of the spiritual mysteries, that alone should give us pause.