September 26, 2016

Ancient wisdom and modern facts

Last year was the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – coming 10 years after his Special Theory threw the entire edifice of physics into a tailspin. This year, the last unproved prediction of the General Theory was settled – that space-time (itself a concept that we are not evolutionary competent to grasp or apprehend directly) could produce “gravity” waves if massive enough fluctuations of gargantuan masses could be induced. In this case, the collapse of two black holes, rotating and then collapsing into each other, did the trick, and the predicted waves were detected by special new equipment built on Earth.

It was a great day for science and the implications are still not fully grasped save that direct apprehension of fluctuations of space-time is tantamount to mankind obtaining a sixth sense – one that takes our evolved five into realms we cannot possibly even dream about. After Einstein’s Special Theory led to the upturning of Newtonian physics and the notion of energy being transmitted only via waves, building on Einstein’s insight quantum theory not overtook the field but only led to concrete benefits in our own lifetimes. This will be the case with General Theory.

But way back the two theories confirmed a fact that very few of us know about, even today: that the universe both at the micro quantum level and the macro cosmological level are not directly apprehensible to our species, but that everything are interconnected. It is as we are the six blind men groping different parts of an elephant, but each insisting that our apprehended portion is THE elephant in toto. At a minimum, this perspective should caution us against making categorical statements about even “observed” phenomena – much less unobserved ones. It is a stance that is much needed in today’s world where each little grouping of mankind offer their truth as THE truth and are willing to exterminate those who may differ.

But even in the absence of modern scientific findings, our forefathers had been able to discern the limited nature of our “knowledge” and suggested modes of behaviour that eschew absolutist claims on “truth”. Take for instance, the African notion of “Ubuntu”. As one African philosopher expressed its wider essence which “has to be discussed in a comprehensive ontological horizon. It shows how the being of an African person is not only imbedded in the community, but in the universe as a whole. This is primarily expressed in the prefix ubu- of the word ubuntu. It refers to the universe as being enfolded, containing everything. The stem -ntu means the process of life as the unfolding of the universe by concrete manifestations in different forms and modes of being. This process includes the emergence of the speaking and knowing human being.”

Last night, the Hindu community commemorated “Shiva Ratri” which reminded them of this greater interconnectedness at a most spectacular level. Hindus conceive of the universes as one interconnected reality that emerged over 4 billion years ago out of singularity that was quiescent for another 8.4 billion years. At one level, this is the “night of Shiva” or “Shiva Ratri” since they posit after that emergence (which they personalise as activated by “Brahma”), the universe will expand and evolve for another 8.4 billion years and be sustained by “Vishnu”. In this scheme of things, we are midway in this particular cycle so in another 4.2 billion years, all will subsist or dissolve once again into a singularity by “Shiva”. And imagine these cycles of 8.4 billion years themselves are infinite! But like the universe itself, we cannot even imagine an atom of it.

While most of us have lost the ancient wonder in the profundity of reality and our human incapacity to apprehend it, maybe the scientific confirmation of our ancient wisdom might encourage more humility in our premises when we deal with “the other”.

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