27 November, 2016

Theory of Being -- I: Glimpses of Being

Our current day understanding of physics leaves several knowledge gaps. In my previous posts, I have argued that ancient Indian thought based on the concept of  धर्म or dharma (sustainability) and भव or bhava (Being) can help address some of the open questions in physics. This post is the first in a series, that tries to make this case a little more coherently. In this post, I'll be addressing some open questions in physics and how some theories to explain these phenomena, have touched upon the notion of "Being".

Before I begin this series, some notes about the vantage point is necessary.

There are some scholars who say that interpreting dharmic thought through the lens of Western universalism (making the Western way of thinking as the fundamental framework through which we interpret other frameworks), does a lot of disservice. It only results in "digestion" of dharmic thought into the Western worldview, thus losing its essence, and reducing it to superficial symbolics.

The above is a very valid argument and I completely agree with it.

However, this post still falls in the realm of Western universalism and, I would argue that this is necessary too. For one, the interpretation that I am attempting to make here addresses some of the core elements of the Western physical worldview. Thus far, dharmic thought in the West has been mostly relegated to the category of "religion" which in turn is defined as a framework of interpretation of the world based on "belief" and "faith" and is considered to have nothing to do with the faculty of science. By this interpretation, I wish to refute such assumptions. Second, it would be difficult to write something about the dharmic worldview using the dharmic worldview as the hermeneutic framework, for my audience who are largely unaware of this worldview. So the Western universalism becomes an imperative here.

Once I have developed the theory of Being (inspired by the dharmic worldview) to a sufficient level of clarity, I can attempt to interpret the Western worldview through this lens. Trying to do that now would make my writing appear meaningless.

I am also in a dilemma whether to use terminology like dharma while developing this theory of Being.  Using such terms in a specific sense to build this theory, risks distorting their original full meaning. However, not using these terms tends to dissociate the inspiration from ancient Indian thought, that is very critical to this theory. Many seminal physicists like David Bohm and Erwin Schrodinger, were inspired by dharmic thought in formulating their theories. However, the world in general, is not aware of this attribution, and continues to associate and propagate meaningless quaint stereotypes with ancient Indian thought.

Hence, I'll resolve the above dilemma, by simply stating it, rather than taking either stance.


Current day physics is based on a particular way of thinking about the world that has its roots in ancient Greece. Around this time, there were several other major and much older civilizations like ancient India, ancient Messopotamia, ancient Egypt, etc. each with their own hermeneutics for interpreting the universe. By the time of Aristotle, ancient Indian thought was already 2000 years old. However, historical events with their twists and turns have resulted in the predominant current day scientific worldview to be largely rooted in the hermeneutics of ancient Greece.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Newtonian physics was the predominant framework for understanding the physical universe.It is based on two fundamental building blocks for the universe -- Particle and Energy. The Particle is the building block of all matter, while Energy is the building block of all forms of force, dynamics and transformations.

The underlying framework in which Newtonian physics interpreted the universe also has two more elements from classical Greek philosophy: logic and Essentialism.

Logic refers to a way of reasoning about truthful implications in a precise fashion. An assertion in logic is either true or false, but never anything in between. This is called the law of excluded middle.

Essentialism posits that everything in the universe is characterized by an abstract "essence" or "-ness". Given an object X belonging to category C, if we remove any element of the essence of X, then X ceases to belong to category C. However, we can remove any number of non-essence properties from X and X continues to belong to C. For instance, if we see a tiger whose tail is missing, we do not fail to recognize it as a tiger -- because the tail does not constitute the "tigerness" of a tiger. 

A method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic creates a theory that has a specific characteristic -- articulation. This involves understanding a complex entity by reducing it to its bare essentials and performing logical implications based on these essentials.

As a result, early 20th century Western thought (including physics) was replete with dichotomies of several kinds. Dichotomies are a characteristic outcome of a method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic.

Whenever there is a dichotomy, there is an open question -- what brought about this dichotomy? Much of the great theoretical advances in science involve discovery of an underlying characteristic or phenomena that bridges a dichotomy.

Some of the greatest theoretical advances in physics of the 20th century too involved breaking some of these dichotomies and establishing an underlying unity.

One such seminal achievement is by the theory of relativity that unifies matter and energy, epitomized by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2. Where we once had a dichotomy between particle and energy, we now know that both are simply energy.

Similarly, another important outcome from quantum mechanics is the realization that for a complete theory of reality, we need to address the entanglement between the subject and object. This entanglement seriously impedes the fundamental dichotomy that is critical for scientific observation -- separation of the observer from the observed. Such results points at fundamental uncertainties in the way we can observe the universe and subsequently in the way we build our models of reality, prompting Werner Heisenberg to famously state:
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
The entanglement between the observer and the observed results in quantum mechanics being formulated on a probabilistic model of the universe. Quantum elements are said to be in a "superposition" of several possible states, represented by a probability distribution (also called the quantum wave function). The act of observation is said to result in a "decoherence" or a "collapse" of the wave function onto a single state that the observer sees.

This probabilistic basis for a physical theory disturbed many physicists. Einstein, for instance, was unconvinced by the validity of a theory of the universe built over a probabilistic basis and said, "God does not play dice."

Einstein was not the only physicist who was dissatisfied with the concept of quantum superposition. Indeed, there are several "interpretations" to the quantum superposition theory as to what it really means. For instance, in the "many worlds" interpretation, a quantum element is said to exist in all its quantum states simultaneously. When subject to an observation, the quantum particle undergoes "decoherence" or a collapse of the wave function into a single state that is observed. However, at the same time (according to this interpretation), the universe splits into several parallel unobservable universes each of which contains all the other possible observations of this decoherence.

Einstein was quite dissatisfied by the concept of quantum superposition and decoherence and with his collaborators Podolsky and Rosen, formulated a thought experiment, called the EPR paradox. We will come back to this paradox in a while, after characterizing the underlying dichotomy that is causing this confusion.


While 20th century advancements in physics resulted in a grand unification of matter and energy, another major dichotomy remains today -- the question of energy versus information.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed great advances in information technology and suddenly "information" became a first-class entity of interest. Information came to be treated as any physical entity in our social universe -- it is created, it is traded, it is consumed, it is secured, it is preserved, etc. 

However, it is increasingly clear that information is fundamentally different from matter. While matter has mass and occupies space, the same is not true for information. A 100GB disk that is full of data, weighs no more than a 100GB disk that is empty. 

We know that all physical processes can be reduced to the dynamics of energy. Energy dynamics has specific properties -- most importantly, the property of conservation. Energy (or matter) exchange is a zero-sum game. We can only convert one form of energy (matter) to another, but cannot create or destroy energy (matter). But information is not subject to the laws of conservation. If I give someone a piece of information, we both have the piece of information. Which is the reason why we can copy a piece of someone else's software for our use, but we cannot copy someone else's car for our use. Similarly, we may never know if our emails are being stolen (that is, copied and read by someone else), but we will definitely know if our car is stolen. Also, unlike matter, a piece of information can be in two places at the same time.

So, there seems to be yet another fundamental dichotomy in our physical universe. This prompted Joe Tucci, chairman of  EMC2 to say: "Everything in this world is either energy or information."

The question of understanding what is information has definitely bothered physicists, who have have long sought to find a physical basis for explaining  information. There are several theories for what is information -- none of them fundamental enough to unify the dichotomy between energy and information. 

However, there is one concept that appears in a rather unsettling manner when we are studying about either energy or information. This is the concept of entropy

The concept of entropy was first proposed by Boltzmann, in the context of thermodynamic processes to represent dissipation or loss of energy contributing to an overall state of "disorder". When developing a theory of information, Claude Shannon developed a theory representing the amount of information in a system as being proportional to the level of uncertainty or "disorder" in the system. When Shannon explained his theory to von Neumann, the latter suggested that he call this as information entropy, saying
"You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage."
One of the reasons why "nobody knows what entropy really is" is that, the concept of entropy is characteristically different from the way in which physics largely thinks. Entropy is an emergent characteristic of a system or an ensemble, rather than an attribute of a particle or an interaction. It is not possible to narrow down entropy to any one particle or interaction in the system. The hermeneutics of articulation is not expressive enough to sufficiently explain the concept of entropy.

So there are two notable takeaways from the above. The concept of entropy which seems to have parallels in the study of energy and in the study of information has the following characteristics: the concept pertains to a system or an ensemble as a whole, rather than any specific particle or interaction; and second, entropy is not constrained by binary existentialism. That is, it is meaningless to ask a true or false question as to whether a given system has entropy or not -- we should instead be asking what is the level of entropy of a system.

Both of these takeaways are important for us to build this theory of Being, in order to connect Energy and Information.

Coming back to quantum mechanics and the EPR paradox, let us look at the debates around this in some more detail. The characteristic feature of the quantum wave function is that it applies as much to ensembles of quantum particles as much as it does to individual particles. This prompted Einstein and his colleagues to formulate the EPR thought experiment.

Suppose two quantum particles collide and fly off in opposite directions at the speed of light. The "system" represented by these two particles is now in a superposition of several quantum states at the same time. When we observe one of the particle, the wave function collapses onto a single state -- causing the other particle which is moving away at twice the speed of light relative to the first, to also collapse its wave function and obtain a deterministic state. If the ensemble were to be in multiple states at the same time, then the first particle needs to somehow communicate with the second particle at twice the speed of light -- which is physically impossible.

While EPR was proposed as a thought experiment, this quantum entanglement has been empirically verified to actually happen. At the core of the quantum entanglement problem lies the problem of understanding information. Either, information can travel faster than the speed of light, without any material carrier, to instantly affect different elements in different parts of the universe, or, there is something about the nature of information that does not need any communication at all (in this case, at least).

One of the most interesting theories (for us) to explain quantum entanglement, was given by the Berkeley physicist David Bohm based on a concept of "non-local" affect or holomovement. To explain this, consider an analogy. Suppose in a room, there is a fish tank containing a single fish. There are two cameras that are focused on the fish. These cameras capture images of the fish and transmit it onto two screens in a lobby. We are observing the two screens in the lobby and it appears that there are two fish moving around in their tanks. After a while, we notice that whenever one fish turns in some direction, the other fish also turns in some other direction. They seem to be coordinating their movements by somehow "instantly communicating" with one another.

But the creator of this system knows that there is no instant communication between the two fish in the lobby. In fact, there is no "two fish in the lobby" -- they are just images of a single fish that exists somewhere else that we cannot see.

This in essence, is the idea of Bohm's non-locality theory. What appears to us as individual particles in different parts of the universe, are basically projections of a single "Being" existing in some higher dimension. The coordinated action by these disparate particles are basically a result of the underlying Being changing its state, rather than an interaction by communication.

There are several observations by Bohm that support such a "Being" basis to understanding the universe. For instance, when electrons are in a state of plasma, Bohm notes that
"...they stopped behaving like individuals and started behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. He later remarked that he frequently had the impression that the sea of electrons was in some sense alive."
At the heart of this problem of quantum non-locality and entanglement, lies the question of understanding information and unifying it with matter/energy. And I have reasons to believe that the theory of Being and sustainability, may hold answers to both these questions. Being theory can help bridge the dichotomy between mind and matter (which operate respectively in the realms of information and energy) and perhaps usher in a new era of science that is much more in harmony with the universe. 

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