Modern Physics and Syadvada (Part-1)

First Steps To Jainism (Part-2)


Appendix C: Modern Physics and Syadvada (Part-1) – Dr. D.S. Kothari

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. – A. Einstein (b. 14.3.1879, d. 18.4.1955).

The one certain thing is that a statement like “existence is meaningless” is itself devoid of any meaning. – Niels Bohr (b. 7.10.1885. d. 18.11.1962).

Complementarity principle in Syadvada

The principle of Complementarity which we owe principally to Niels Bohr is perhaps the most significant and revolutionary concept of modern physics. Philosophically, it should be noted, it is very close to the concept of Syadvada. Bohr had great faith in the future role in human affairs of the practical philosophy of complementarity. It can enable people to see that seemingly irreconcilable points of view need not be contradictory. These, on deeper understanding, may be found to be complementary and mutually illuminating. The complementarity approach allows the possibility of accommodating widely divergent human experiences into an under-lying harmony, and bringing to light new social and ethical vistas for exploration and for alleviation of human suffering. Bohr fervently hoped that one day complementarity would be an integral part of everone’s education and provide guidance in the problems and challenges of life. For Bohr the complementarity approach which accomplished one of the greatest revolutions in natural philosophy was also of the utmost relevance for every aspect of man’s life.

Modern Physics (relativity and quantum theory) provides as never before, far-reaching examples of, and insight into, Syadvada. Also Syadvada makes it much easier to grasp the complementarity principle in physics. Above all Syadvada and so the complementarity approach is a guide for the pursuit of truth and ahimsa in all their varied aspects.

H. Yukawa, the Japanese physicist who predicted the existence of the mesons on the basis of the principle of complementarity, was asked whether young physicists in Japan found the same great difficulty in comprehending the idea of complementarity as physicists do in the West. He replied that Bohr’s complementarity always appeared to them as quite evident. “You see we in Japan have not been corrupted by Aristotle (Aristotle’s Logic)”, he added. How much more would it be true of India if Syadvada was a part of Indian education but our formal education (till recently ?) has hardly any Indian roots.

It is interesting to recall that Bohr as a student attended Hoffding lectures on formal logic and on the history of philosophy. He liked Spinoza’s concept of the psychophysical parallelism, but later rejected it, as parallelism is not a true expression of complementarity. He read Kierkegaard. He was much impressed by Paul Muller’s “Tale of Danish Student”, a delightful humorous story of Hegelian dialectics. A soul-searching research scholar struggles desperately to unravel the intricacies of human thinking. How can a thought arise in the mind ? “And before you think it, you must have had an idea of it, otherwise how could it have occurred to you to think it ? And so it goes on to infinity, and this infinity enclosed in an instant”. And while the scholar is trying to prove that thoughts cannot move, in that very process the thoughts are rapidly moving. We are involved in an inexplicable contradiction. (L. Rosenfeld, Physics Today, Oct, 1963.). All this is so similar to the celebrated Zeno’s paradox on the impossibility of motion of objects.

Language and Reality

At this point a few words about ambiguities and contradictions inherent in ordinary language may be in order. Bohr’s first and continuing preoccupation with philosophical problems related to the use of language for unambiguously describing our experiences. A fundamental difficulty in this regard arises from the inescapable fact that man is both actor and spectator in the universe, an idea that was Bohr’s favourite reflection. Thus, when I am `seeing’ a thing, I am also `acting’ : my choice to see the particular thing is an `act’, on my part. We often use the same word to describe a state of our consciousness and of the associated, accompanying behaviour of the body. How to avoid the ambiguity? Bohr drew attention to the beautiful analogy of the concepts of multiform function and Riemann surface. The different values of a multiform function and distributed on different Riemann planes of a Riemann surface. Similarly we may say that the different meanings of the same word belong to different `planes of objectivity’. “The use of words in everyday life must be subject to the condition that they be kept within the same plane of objectivity, and as soon as we deal with words referring to our own thinking, we are exposed to the danger of gliding on to another plane. In mathematics, that highly sophisticated language, we are guarded against this danger by the essential rule never to refer to ourselves. But just as the gist or Riemann’s conception lies in regarding all the branches of a multiform function as one single function, it is an essential feature of ordinary language that there is one word only for the different aspects of a given form of psychical activity. We cannot hope, therefore, to avoid such deep rooted ambiguities by creating `new concepts’. We must rather recognise the mutual relationships of the planes of objectivity as primitive, irreducible ones, and try to remain keenly aware of them” (Rosenfeld p-49).

Bohr often used to tell how the ancient Indian thinkers had emphasized the futility of our ever understanding the “meaning of existence”. And he would add that the one certain thing is that a statement like “existence is meaningless” is itself devoid of any meaning.

In his Gifford Lectures (1955-56) on Physics and Philosophy Heisenberg has discussed at some length the problem of language and reality in modern physics. He emphasised that the concepts of natural or ordinary language “are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality. It is true that they are not very well defined and may therefore also undergo changes in the course of the centuries, just as reality itself did, but they never lose the immediate connection with reality” (p.,171). On the other hand because the concepts of science are for the precisely defined, idealised, their connection with reality is in general, only in a limited domain of nature. Heisenberg says : “Keeping in mind the intrinsic stability of the concepts of natural language in the process of scientific development, one sees that after the experience of modern physics-our attitude toward concepts like mind or the human soul or life or God will be different from that of the nineteenth century. Because these concepts belong to the natural language and have therefore immediate connection with reality. It is true that we will also realise that these concepts are not well defined in the scientific sense and that their application may lead to various contradictions, for the time being we may have to take the concepts unanalysed as they are; but still we know that they touch reality. It may be useful in this connection to remember that even in the most precise part of science in mathematics, we cannot avoid using concepts that involve contradictions. For instance, it is well known that the concept of infinity leads to contradictions that have been analysed, but it would be practically impossible to construct the main parts of mathematics without this concept – Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word `understanding’. We know that any understanding must be based finally upon the natural language because it is only there that we can be certain to touch reality,and hence we must be sceptical about any scepticism with regard to this natural language and its essential concepts. Therefore we, may use these concepts as they have been used at all times. In this way modern physics has perhaps opened the door to a wider outlook on the relation between the human mind and reality”. (p. 171-73)

Modern Physics has warned us against the dangers of overestimating the value and utility of precise scientific concepts : for example, the fundamental concepts of classical physics no longer hold in quantum mechanics. In describing atomic phenomena “if one wishes to speak about the atomic particles themselves one must either use the mathematical scheme as the only supplement to natural language or one must conbine it with a language that makes use of a modified logic or of no well-defined logic at all. In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts, with phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life. But the elementary particles themselves are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts”. (p. 160)

A favourite maxim of Bohr of interest in connection with Syadvada is the distinction between the two kinds of truths, profound truths and trival truths. For a profound truth its opposite or negation is also a profound truth. For a trivial truth its opposite is false, an absurdity. Statements expressing the highest wisdom often involve words whose meaning cannot be defined unambiguously. “Thus the truth of a statement of the highest wisdom is not absolute, but is only relative to a suitable meaning for the ambiguous words in it, with the consequence that the converse statement also has validity and is also wisdom”. Bohr illustrated this with his statement. “There is a God”, a statement of great wisdom and truth, and the converse ‘There is no God’ also a statement of great wisdom and truth. (For him who believes that there is no God, his God is ‘no-God’. The aspects of God are infinite, inexhaustible, inexpressible). This reminds of an oft quoted dialogue between Lord Mahavira and his favourite disciple Gautam. (Nathmal Tatia, Studies in Jaina Philosophy, Jain Cultural Research Society, Banaras, (1951) pp. 22-23.)

“Are the souls, O Lord, eternal or non-enternal ?”

“The Souls, O Gautama, are eternal in some respect and non-enternal in some respect.”

“With what end in view, O Lord, is it said that the souls are enternal in some respect and non-eternal in some respect ?”

“They are enternal. O Gautama, from the view point of substance, and non-eternal from the view point of modes, and with this end in view it is said, O Gautama, that the souls are eternal in some respect and non-eternal in some respect”.

“Is the body, O Lord, identical with the soul or is the body different from it ?”

“The body, O Gautama, is identical with the soul as well as it is different from it”.

Atom and Complementarity

Let us, for the time being, limit ourselves to the domain of logical-empirical experience, that is communicable, objective facts, and ask what is the radically new situation we meet with in dealing with atomic phenomena (quantum physics) as distinct from everyday experience (classical physics). When we speak of a ‘table or chair’, any meaningful statement and its negation cannot both be correct at the same time. If the statement ‘the chair is in this room’ is correct, then the statement ‘the chair is not in this room’ is false. Both cannot be true at the same time. But this fundamental principle of logic and common-sense, is, in general, violated in atomic phenomena. Atoms in general behave in a manner completely foreign, totally repugnant, to common-sense and classical logic.

Consider an idealised situation which brings out the essentials. There is an ‘atom in a closed box’. the box is divided by a partition into two equal compartments. The partition has a very small hole so that the atom can pass through it. The hole can be closed if desired. According to classical logic the atom can be either in the left compartment (L) or in the right compartment (R). There is no third alternative. But the new physics forces us to admit other possibilities to explain adequately the results of experiments. If we at all use the word `box’ and `atom’, then there is no escape whatsoever from admitting- in some strange way which totally defies description in words – that the same atom is at the same time, in both the compartments. What we are speaking of is not a case of the atom being sometimes in the left compartment and some times in the right compartment,but being in both the compartments at the same time . It is an idea crazy beyond words. And so it is. But there is no escape.

Consider the ‘box and atom’ situation a little further. We suppose a beam of light illuminating the box (which we may take to be transparent), and we study the angular distribution of the intensity of light scattered by the atom in the box, We make three experiments. Firstly, the atom is placed in L with the hole closed; secondly, the atom is placed in R with the hole closed; and thirdly, the atom is placed in the box with the hole open so that it can move freely in the whole box. The observed intensity-distribution of light for the third case is truly astonishing. The intensity distribution is not a mixture, a sum, of the distribution for this first and the second case, the composition of the mixture depending on the fraction of time spent by the atom in each of the two compartments. The distribution is in fact altogether different. It shows an interference feature which can be only explained by assuming that the incident light is scattered from the atom present, at the same time, in both the compartments : The atom is, in some strange way, in the two compartments at the same time. It shows in this case a behaviour fundamentally different from that of a ‘particle’. A particle cannot be at two places at the same time. The new aspect of the atom revealed in the third experiment is called the ‘wave aspect’. A wave fills all available space. Totally unlike large objects, objects on the atomic scale show a dual aspect, a particle aspect and a wave aspect. The two aspects which are totally contradictory in every day experience are complementary at the level of atoms. Why so ? because nature is so constituted that experiments which demonstrate the particle aspect and those which demonstrate the wave aspect are mutually incompatible. We can have only the one set-up or the other, and never the two can be combined or built together into some super-apparatus to demonstrate both the aspects at the same time. We ask : What is it that makes these experiments mutually incompatible ? It arises from the far reaching, and totally unexpected, fact that an act of observation, even an ideal observation supposed to be made with `perfect’ instruments is inevitably accompanied by certain minimum disturbance. The disturbance cannot be eliminated, cannot be analysed or allowed for. It is inherent in the nature of things. It disturbs in an unpredictable way, the state of the system under observation. We cannot even think of an experiment a thought experiment, as it is called-that can be made free of the concomitant minimum uncertainty. The effect of this inevitable disturbance is altogether negligible for a big object, but for an atomic object the effect is drastic. It drastically modified the state of the system under investigation. (This is technically called the `reduction of the wave packet’). It is because of this disturbance, an integral feature of an act of observation, that an experiment to study the wave aspect of an atomic system is incompatible with a set-up to study the particle aspect.

We spoke of the wave-particle duality. Consider the usual arrangement for obtaining interference fringes. For the light beam each photon must pass through both the holes (at the same time) to produce interference fringes. This is observed on the plate P. Suppose we wish to find out how a photon can simultaneously go through the two holes. How can this happen ? For this purpose, we determine the momentum of the plate P in the Y-direction. The plate had to be kept rigidly fixed to observe the fringes. But to observe the momentum of the plate, it must be completely free to move in the Y-direction. Further, if we are to be able to decide whether the photon came from the direction of the hole A or from the hole B, the uncertainty in the momentum in the Y-direction of the plate should be small compared to hy0/c.