The Great Truth

My Physics guru and a very dear friend of mine, T.S. Ananthu sent me an essay titled, "The Great Truth", a few weeks ago. He is a scientist and eminent Gandhian worker who has written extensively on various aspects of Gandhi’s approach to society and life, particularly ecology and farming. He is a trustee of Navadarshanam, living an earth reverent life at the Navadarshanam integrated settlement in Bangalore.

This article is a piece of gem, weaving threads of wisdom from scientists, ecologists and other remarkable men who stood for everything that's noble and honourable in human beings. This article shows how great scientists have also had the ecological bent of mind. Check out Einstein's quote on bees below and you would know what I am talking about. Of course, it is worth introspecting our inclination to compartmentalize and create labels such as Science, Ecology while the great truth has always been one unified, organic whole; Life, to put it simply.  

Also worth exploring is Schumacher's( for the uninitiated, I am not referring to the F1 Schumacher, if you haven't heard about Schumacher, I recommend you start from here) meditations on Education in this article.  This year is quite special as 2011 marks the centenary year of the birth of Schumacher. 

P.S: While the truth may be real, I am aware that the very process of writing often turns it into falsehood. It is indeed ironic that this futility in expression is always something that we can never escape.

The Great Truth

Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, once made a very profound observation:

There are two kinds of truths – small truth and great truth. The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

He had made this observation in the context of the discovery of the nature of the electron. Experiments being conducted by physicists had resulted in data that was utterly contradictory to each other, and the physics community in those days was struggling to make sense of these experimental observations. The nature of their perplexity was well captured by Werner Heisenberg.

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair and when at the end of the discussions I went alone for a walk in the neighbouring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?”
Finally, Bohr and others ‘solved’ the problem by treating the nature of the electron as a “great truth”. What does that mean? Let us first take an example of a small truth:
“The earth is round”
The opposite of the above statement is: “The earth is flat”

As the first one is a truth – albeit a small truth – its opposite has to be a falsehood. Therefore, the earth is not flat, and we can assert this categorically.
The interesting and important conclusion that Bohr and others reached about the nature of the electron is that the above logic does not apply in its case. For example, take the simple statement:
“The electron is a particle”

The opposite of this is

“The electron is not a particle”

Bohr and his team reached the conclusion that BOTH the above statements are correct – they convey a Great Truth.

At the level of logic, this seems absurd. But what Bohr tried to convey through his famous statement is that life is above logic. If we confine ourselves to logic, we can comprehend only the small truths – which have nothing to do with life. Albert Einstein conveyed the same point to his colleague Max Born in the following words:

“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 one another. We are now experiencing this rather tragically in physics.”
Using different phraseology, Einstein is conveying exactly what Bohr has tried to – that the Great Truth of life is above logic. It is when viewed from this angle that Bohr’s statement is of great value to each one of us, whether or not we are involved in physics. For a better understanding of what this means to anyone who has to deal with the problems that life throws up, let us turn to another great mind that the 20th century produced – E.F.Schumacher.

E.F.Schumacher was a very renowned economist. He started off as a Keynesian economist, and was in fact one of the favourites of John Maynard Keynes. But later he switched to what he termed “Buddhist economics”, and authored the best-seller Small is Beautiful.
What made him make this switch? It was precisely the same discovery that Bohr had made – that the Great Truth is Life, which is above logic. He explained it very beautifully by making the important distinction between ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ problems:

To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems…….
“We know that there are solved problems and unsolved problems. The former, we may feel, do not present a problem; but as regards the latter: are there problems that are not merely unsolved but insoluble?

“First, let us take a look at solved problems. Take a design problem –say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered, which gradually and increasingly converge, until, finally, a design emerges which is simply ‘the answer’ – a bicycle, an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable in time. Why is this answer so stable? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe – laws at the level of inanimate matter.

“I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you study them, the more – whoever you are – the answers converge. They may be classified into ‘convergent problem solved’ and ‘convergent problem as yet unsolved’. The words ‘as yet’ are important; for there is no reason, in principle, why they should not be solved some day. Everything takes time, and there simply has not been time enough to get around to solving them. What is need is more time, more money for R&D and, maybe, more talent.
“It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people set out to study a problem and come up with answers that contradict one another. They do not converge. On the contrary, the more they are clarified and logically developed, the more they diverge, until some of them appear to be the exact opposite of the others. For example, life presents us with a very big problem – not the technical problem of two-wheeled transport, but the human problem of how to educate our children. We cannot escape it; we have to face it, and we ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them, on the basis of a very clear intuition, tell us this: Education is the process by which existing culture is passed on to the next generation. Those who have (or are supposed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. This is quite clear, and implies that there must be a situation of authority and discipline.
 “Nothing could be simpler, truer, more logical and straightforward. When it is a matter of passing existing knowledge from the knowers to the learners, there must be discipline among learners to receive what is being offered. In other words, education calls for establishment of authority for the teachers and for discipline and obedience on the part of the pupils.
“Now, another group of advisors, having gone into the problem with utmost care, says this: ‘Education is nothing more or less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, who is concerned to make available good, healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots and then extract the nutrients it requires. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human being can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.’ Education, in other words, as seen by this second group, calls for the establishment not of discipline and obedience, but of freedom – the greatest possible freedom.

“If our first group of advisors is right, discipline and obedience is ‘a good thing’, and it can be argued with perfect logic that if something is ‘a good thing’, more of it will be an even better thing; and this line of logic leads to the conclusion that perfect discipline and obedience would be a perfect thing ….and the school would become a prison!

“Our second group of advisors, on the other hand, argues that in education freedom is ‘a good thing’. If so, more freedom will be an even better thing, and perfect freedom would produce perfect education. The school would become a wilderness, even a kind of lunatic asylum!

“Freedom and discipline/obedience – here is a perfect pair of opposites. No compromise is possible. It is either the one or the other. It is either ‘do as you like’ or ‘do as I tell you’.
“Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true, its opposite cannot be true at the same time. It also insists that, if a thing is good, more of it will be better. Here, however, we have a very typical and very basic problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, ‘straight-line’ logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.

“ ‘What is the best method of education?’ in short presents a divergent problem par excellence The answers tend to diverge; the more logical and consistent they are, the greater is the divergence. There is “freedom” versus “discipline and obedience”. There is no solution – and yet, some educators are better than others. How do they do it? One way to find out is to ask them. If we explained to them our philosophical difficulties they might show signs of irritation with this intellectual approach. ‘Look here,’ they might say,’ all this is far too clever for me. The point is: you must love the little horrors.’ Love, empathy, participation, mystique, understanding, compassion – these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently: that requires a high level of self-awareness, and that makes a great educator.”
In short, Schumacher is conveying the same point that Bohr did, thus:

  • Those problems that can be solved through the intellect are ‘convergent’ problems. These solutions emanate from our understanding of the laws that govern the inanimate parts of the universe. They represent the ‘small truths’ of this world. 

  • Problems relating to the animate parts of the universe cannot be solved by this method. They represent the Great Truth – of life. They have to be coped with, rather than ‘solved’ for ever  - Schumacher makes a reference to the ‘final solution’ that was attempted by his countrymen as an example of the futility of treating living beings as objects to be manipulated. As a famous saying emphasizes, “Peace comes not from the absence of conflict but from the ability to cope with it”. 
  •  And how does one develop the ability to cope, to handle problems relating to living beings? Through self-awareness, which will result in our being able to operate at a higher level of consciousness, a level that transcends the ‘duality’ we encounter at the lower or inanimate or ‘convergent’ levels. As Schumacher explains using the words of Maurice Stace: “Our normal everyday consciousness always has objects, or images, or even our own feelings or thoughts perceived introspectively. Suppose then that we obliterate all objects physical or mental. When the self is not engaged in apprehending objects it becomes aware of itself. The self itself emerges….”
Modern science and modern education have cut themselves off from these wonderful education processes which enhance self-awareness. Schumacher was lucky enough to have become a student of an adept of Vipassana meditation while in Burma in the 1950s, which is what triggered his shift from Keynesian to Buddhist economics.

Niels Bohr and his fellow-physicists were not dealing with animate but inanimate matter – physical objects consisting of ‘sub-atomic particles’ such as the electron. So, how come they discovered the reality of the Great Truth, which has to do with living beings and life? Why did they not stick to the usual ‘convergent’ methods of problem-solving in which all physicists are so well trained?
One reason for this is that all their efforts to come up with a logical framework which would explain all the experimental results relating to electrons totally failed. But the bigger reason is that nearly all of the great physicists of the early 20th century who struggled with this problem and eventually came up with the solutions (what now goes by the name of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity Theory) had, in their personal lives, some exposure to self-awareness techniques of one kind or another, which they had acquired quite outside of their academic existence.

A good example is Erwin Schroedinger, whose equation forms the foundation of Quantum Mechanics. In addition to physics, he was also an ardent student of Vedanta. Therefore, when deeply absorbed in the question ‘what is an electron?’, he suddenly asked himself ‘but suppose the electron were to turn around and ask me – so, Mr. Schroedinger, you are trying to figure out what I am, a particle, or a wave, or what. But who, by the way, Mr. Schroedinger, are you?’

It was such an insight relating to the fundamental question ‘Who am I?’ (a basic step to self-awareness) that formed the backdrop to Schroedinger’s famous equation, and also to contributions made in those days to physics by the likes of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, de Broglie and others.

What an irony that the Great Truth, which we educated people were trying to jettison from our lives in the name of science, should be re-appearing in this very science, in the study of inanimate matter. The physicist James Jeans has conveyed it beautifully:

“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.”

This, then, is the Great Truth – that at the level of body and mind, each of us is a separate entity, but at the level of life, we are all members of one body. 
This Great Truth forms the theoretical basis for Ahimsa as well as Ecology. Why shouldn’t I kill someone else? Because that ‘someone else’ is no other than me, and so by killing him I am harming myself, like the left hand getting jealous of the right hand and cutting it off. Why should we save the tiger, or whale or any other endangered species? Because if these species were to become extinct, human beings too will soon become extinct. As Einstein put it in very simple terms:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
This deep but invisible connection between all things – acknowledged by physicists at the level of the sub-atomic particles, and emphasized by mystics and saints at the level of living beings – is the Great Truth. But it has to be realized, and not just talked about. As the Buddha put it:

“Learning is a good thing, but it availeth not. True wisdom is availeth by practice only. So, PRACTICE the simple truth that the man there is thou.”


bharath said...

absolutely awesome article!!!!

Venkataraman said...

Thanks for your comments Bharath! As such, this article is HIS gem..:)