Over the weekend, spent some time with old friends in San Francisco. P was visiting from Delaware and B from North Dakota. Beautiful weather after the exhilarating storms that passed through a few days before that.
Sitting in the financial district Holiday Inn lobby waiting for A to show up (stop and go traffic, he kept telling us over the many cell phone contacts), the conversation drifted to ‘faith’.
B wanted to know what was it that made people have faith. I confessed that I have absolutely zero faith. P said that he had faith in his ability. B said that he was more interested in the faith that people have in an afterlife and in god and so on. I said that only feeble-minded people need the crutch that faith provides against the terrors of non-existence that follows death.
Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and emperor, was not feeble-minded when he wrote in his “Meditations”
What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgement, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.
That was the attitude that Carl Sagan expressed when he was dying of cancer. He wrote
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking
. . .the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides
… Many [people] have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn’t been a problem. With reservations about feeble souls, I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”
Sagan passed into the great beyond in December 1999. A truly great soul, in a manner of speaking of course. I don’t have faith in soul. I am not one who believes that the universe is made of ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’. It is all of one thing — call it matter or call it spirit — take your pick. But you can’t have both.
Sagan is remembered for his great and triumphant attempt at sparking an interest in our wonderous universe in millions of people through his television series COSMOS and his many popular writings. And his trade mark “billions and billions” expression which many people affectionately remember him saying in his COSMOS series (but which in fact he never did.)
He did say billions though and said it many times. But what can you say when you are talking about the age of the universe or the number of galaxies and the number of stars in these galaxies. I dare you to talk about all this without the use of ‘billions.’
When you talk about the length of a Day of Brahma, you have to say billions. One episode of COSMOS focused on India. When asked why so, he remarked that it did so
because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe — a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.
He is referring to Mahakalpa. One thousand Mahakalpas is equal to one Day of Brahma.
Brahma’s waking period lasts 4.32 billion years. Following that he sleeps for another 4.32 billion years. While asleep, he dreams the world into existence.
We are a dream in Brahma’s mind. Brahma is running a simulation of the world while asleep. When he awakes, that simulation ends and so on.
We are just a lot of dream stuff.
The ancients in India dreamt all that stuff up, of course. And the physicists of today are dreaming more such stuff. And from time to time, there are surprising convergences between the two. Again Sagan says
As far as I know [Hinduism] is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural.
In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.
Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night of Brahma, and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods.
And this is a very grand idea. Whether it is true or not, is not yet clear. But it makes the pulse quicken, and we thought it was a good way to approach the subject.
It is a cyclic universe. Big crunches following big bangs following big crunches. The boom and bust cycle of the economy played on a stage the size of the known universe.
And I am at the center of that known universe. Just as you are of course. And so is everyone else at the center of the known universe. Everything is at the center of the known universe.
And the universe is perfect at every moment.
It is the perfect dance of Shiva as he dances the Tandava in his form as the King of Dancers, the Nataraja. Shiva dancing at the “Edge of Forever”. Which is the title of a chapter of COSMOS. Sagan explains
The traditional explanation of the Nataraja is that it symbolizes the creation of the universe in one hand and the death of the universe in the other — the drum and the flame — and after all, that is what cosmology is all about. So in addition to being artistically exquisite, the Nataraja provides exactly the kind of symbolism that we wanted.
So there you have it. What we can be certain about is that fact that we are going to die one day, as Bipin pointed out. The rest is uncertain. How did the universe begin? What caused it to come into existence? What is the point in all this?
Big minds can perhaps answer these questions. Or maybe not. The “Hymn to Creation” of the Rg Veda concludes
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
No one knows whence creation arose;
and whether god has or has not made it.
He who surveys it from the highest regions
Perhaps he knows it, or perhaps he knows not.
That’s the ultimate expression of agnosticism, of doubt, the first necessary step in the infinite journey of discovery and enlightenment. The ancients in India conjectured about the origin of the universe and why. The Isa Upanishad:
“. . .in the beginning there was Existence alone
One only, without a second.
He the One thought to himself:
let me be many, let me grow forth.
Thus out of himself he projected the universe;
and having projected out of himself the universe,
he entered into every being. . .
He is the truth.
He is the Self.
And that, Svataketu,
THAT ART THOU.”
It is all karma, neh?
[This recycled post is from Nov 2002.]
POST SCRIPT: It is best not to interpret the above to mean that I claim that there is some mystical connection between ancient Hindu thought and modern cosmology. I merely noted that the time scales are similar. Just as I could looking up at the sky point out that the pattern made by the clouds reminds me of a leaping tiger.
I am merely doing a bit of pattern recognition. I just noted a curious co-incidence. I would not stretch it to mean that all sorts of modern physical explanations derive their insights from Hindu metaphysics.