Vanity thought #1226. Advice

If you want to be born, be born before sunrise, before the first light of day

Let there be silence around you and let there be silence inside

Bow down to the stars, bow down to the Moon

Let the world be quiet so you can hear the Lord speaking from your heart

Let you hear yourself longing for the Lord

So what if you were born with baggage

So what if you can’t remember the Lord

Forget all this crap and go to sleep

Dream about the Lord, call for him in your heart

If you want to wake up, wake up before the sunrise

Let the world fall silent

Let your heart sing for the Lord

Let the Lord hear the song of you heart

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

Hare Rāma Hare Rāma Rāma Rāma Hare Hare

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Vanity thought #1225. Geo-devotees part 2

Yesterday I talked about geopolitics negatively affecting spread of Kṛṣṇa consciousness in the West in the days of Gauḍīyā Maṭha and how geopolitics were favorable in the days of Śrīla Prabhupāda. Time was right, Śrīla Prabhupāda was the right person, and necessary lessons had been learned. The most important lesson from that speculation, however, was probably my realization that so called failure of the first devotees who went to England was unavoidable and almost necessary, so whatever negative effects it had on their spiritual health should be seen in light of that necessity. I hope Kṛṣṇa has not taken their offense too seriously and neither should we. That is not to say that offenses in general could be acceptable, that is to say that blaming devotees for committing them is not.

Kṛṣṇa has His own reasons for putting His devotees through these troubles and He takes personal care that their spiritual progress is put back on track. We all fail from time to time and we all have residual envy towards Kṛṣṇa and guru, sometimes it spills out and everybody notices it, but isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it better than envy still lurking deep inside our hearts where we don’t notice it and naively believe that we have become free? How can we deal with anarthas that we don’t even realize are there?

Never mind that, geopolitics hasn’t stopped working with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s departure, actually it was just starting to affect our future movement most directly. Śrīla Prabhupāda was hoping that his translation of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam would attract attention of the cream of American society and that with their help he’d be able to convert the rest of the country to the cult of pure bhakti of Lord Caitanya. He created the cult alright but not the kind he had in mind.

Brāhmaṇas getting the ear of kṣatriyas is how things have always been done in India. The entire Bhāgavatam is about kṣatriyas, after all, starting with Mahārāja Parīkṣit as the recipient. It was natural for Prabhupāda to expect that mission of Lord Caitanya would be spread in a similar way but it wasn’t to be – the world has changed, politics have changed.

The US was a democracy and in democratic countries one person doesn’t make that much of a difference. For one reason or another, Kṛṣṇa has arranged for people of Kali yuga to make all major decisions collectively rather than putting their trust into any single person. There are obvious disadvantages to this system but that’s how the world *is* nowadays and even an absolutely transcendental movement like that of Lord Caitanya has to follow conventions. If we could overwrite geopolitics, Kṛṣṇa hasn’t given us this ability or maybe severely restricted it.

Btw, to affect change in a democratic society one must create a narrative appealing to a sufficient number of relevant people. One could go either through masses and hope that general mood would eventually affect actual decision makers, or one can appeal to decision makers first and hope that masses don’t object. Either way, one needs to create a message designed to work on a certain class of people, not single individuals. Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t know that yet and he relied only on Kṛṣṇa to guide him from within. That would also work, of course.

Prabhupāda spent some time in that small place in Pennsylvania and rightly concluded that he won’t be able to change the world from there, so he went to New York, the real place that mattered. Nothing happened at first, he had to learn the place, get the feel of it, get to know the people, his own position, and explore his options. Any idea why he didn’t start his harināmas in Thompson park in the middle of winter? Rhetorical question, of course. He started when weather cooperated and, incidentally, he was ready, too.

I’m not aware that he had a plan B and, perhaps, he abandoned the idea of converting New York VIPs altogether. Instead he got surrounded by hippies. A lot has been said about that hippie generation and why they took to Kṛṣṇa consciousness so enthusiastically. In the context of this topic I would stress that had Prabhupāda arrived ten years earlier his audience wouldn’t have been ready and had he arrived ten years later they would have been hopelessly spoiled. He got them just at the right time.

People who lived through the war were too invested in status quo, they couldn’t imagine rebelling against the country they helped to win. There was a need for a new generation that took that victory for granted and were not prepared to overlook post-war excesses just because America had won something. In fact, most of what they saw in their lives was not heroism but the kind of life that is now used to illustrate backwardness and hypocrisy of American society. In public government talked freedom but there was also anti-communist witch hunt. Government talked equality but not when it came to women and blacks. Government talked opportunities but people were expected to know their place and follow norms. Rebellion was inevitable and Śrīla Prabhupāda came just in time.

Ten years later this drive for better and more honest life was defeated by addiction to drugs and unrestrained sex. In the sixties people still had guts, though. They still measured themselves by the heroism of the previous generations and were more than ready to completely change their lives for something bigger and better. In the seventies it was all over, drugs got better of them, and the establishment found the ways to subvert the revolution so we got disco.

There was another period in a different part of the world where geopolitics helped our movement immensely – I mean Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Repressive Soviet establishment collapsed, Soviet values and ideology were destroyed, there was an enormous gap left in people’s hearts and they were looking to anchor themselves to something else. Enter Hare Kṛṣṇas. Devotees have been active there for well over a decade but when geopolitics were not right, success was elusive. As soon as atmosphere changed everything fell into place and our preaching grew by leaps and bounds.

I wish I could explain the explosion currently happening in India but I just don’t know situation there very well. Doesn’t matter, I think these two examples – the US and the SU – look convincing enough for me to say that geopolitics matter quite a lot even for devotees. Maybe not on a level of someone’s personal consciousness and personal progress but as a society we happen to live by the same rules as everybody else. Sometimes we grow and sometimes we stall and it largely depends on external circumstances, we just have to be patient and have faith in Kṛṣṇa and Lord Caitanya.

We are not independent and we can’t do anything without their mercy, we know that, but, perhaps, we should also realize that their mercy is absolute in a sense that even if it’s not visible at the time it still works outside of our vision and prepares the world for its full manifestation. Take the Internet, for example – we’ve been trying to utilize it for preaching but nothing happened yet. Maybe the situation is just not right yet, maybe we need to wait for emergence of a more receptive generation or more effective technologies to really reach out to people. That’s a whole different topic, though, so I’ll stop here and continue tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1225. Geo-devotees

Yesterday I talked about geopolitics, how countries external and internal policies are literally, not just metaphorically, guided by their geography. I don’t think my evidence and arguments were exhaustive and comprehensive but that’ll do for now, someone could write a book on this subject and it would still not be enough. Today I want to get to the meat of the issue – how geography affects devotees.

On one hand, devotees are transcendental by definition. We can also say that because of our residential impurities we might succumb to the control of māyā from time to time and we would see it as inconsequential personal failures. What I’m saying, however, is that we are guided by geography even in our best, most authoritative efforts. I’d be careful to interpret it as if our society is ALWAYS in māyā, I’d say that it’s guided by Lord’s internal potency BUT through the medium of mundane geography.

Well, not only geography, of course, also history and economics and a host of other aspects that define societies and cultures, I mean that quintessentially we, as a society, are guided by material nature, albeit acting on Lord’s orders. Understanding this point should lead, in my opinion, to better understanding of what is more important to our spiritual lives and what is less important, and to better understanding of reasons for our behavior, and to better understanding of who should get the blame, if anyone at all, when things go wrong.

I’ve not discovered anything new, haven’t invented any new arguments either, my conclusion is based entirely on what I have heard from our authorities. We all heard that, I’m just trying to put it into different context and draw attention to, perhaps, unnoticed consequences.

It is possible that logic fails me somewhere or that I missed something equally important but so far it looks good to me, corrections are welcome.

Where to start? Maybe at the beginning. Our ISKCON starts with Śrīla Prabhupāda. Śrīla Prabhupāda started as a son of a merchant from Calcutta. Should we take that into account when talking about spiritual impact of his life? Bear with me. First of all, being born in Calcutta he necessarily grew close to British colonial culture because Calcutta was the capital of British India at that time. Being born into a fairly wealthy family allowed him to receive British education in a British run school. That was important for several reasons.

Not everybody spoke fluent English and among those who did, not many were raised on “British” values and literature. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was one such man and his exposure to western thought and philosophy played a major part in him being able to accomplish what he did. We know him as a topmost devotee, of course, but we should also acknowledge that his career in government service made him a very authoritative figure able to grab attention of highest levels of Hindu society. Had he been a coolie no one would ever listen to him, he wouldn’t be able to write and publish books and so on. His familiarity with western philosophy and ability to transcend it and show how Bhāgavatam would always remain superior also earned him a lot of street cred among Hindus who at the time didn’t know how to respond to overwhelming superiority of the Brits.

For Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, it was his English literary ability that was more important for success of his spiritual mission. He could write and he appreciated books more than anything else, and that was apparently a rare quality among thousands of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī followers. He also spent decades of his life in business and that earned him street smarts that were helpful in running our society later in his life, and also made him realize that the world has changed, find where the winds were blowing, and go with the flow.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī sent his disciples to preach in England and Germany, Brits being the colonial master and the ruler of the world for the past two hundred years, and Germany being very interested in India, Sanskrit, and all things Aryan. Largely, these efforts failed, and for several totally natural reasons. Masters are not keen to be lectured by their subjects and wherever Bhaktisiddhānta’s ambassadors went, they were seen as inherently inferior, as monkeys who’d been taught to mimic people, or as savages who’d been taught some manners. Indians were meant to be servants, not teachers. It was simply impossible to overcome this attitude on a mass scale.

Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, went to America. By that time it was obvious where the future of the world was and that British Empire was in a steep and irreversible decline. British establishment had nothing to offer to the world but attempts at preserving old traditions and old imperial attitudes. The way forward lied elsewhere. After the World War II it was also very obvious who the winner was. English might have tasted victory but it was the US that emerged incomparably stronger and more powerful in every aspect. Americans controlled the future, and to control the world one must have learned to control Americans.

Śrīla Prabhupāda saw this, no one else in Gauḍīyā Maṭha did, and they were concerned with things other than preaching at that time, what to speak of conquering the whole world. Could they have seen it earlier, when Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was still around? They could, but there were geopolitical reasons why it didn’t happen then.

America was already incredibly strong but had very little interest in India, comparatively speaking, and Indians had very little exposure to the US. Indian political discourse was dominated by their relations to Britain, Britain was their chief adversary, they simply didn’t see anything else and they thought that Britain needed to be conquered first.

I guess it was possible for them to predict that Indians would never be able to convince British of superiority of Gauḍīyā Vaiṣṇavism on any scale but they HAD TO try first, there needed be a failed mission to England just to be sure.

Śrīla Prabhupāda, when his time came, had all this experience before him already. It wasn’t just failure, or rather modest success of the previous mission, but the whole experience, all kinds of issues and impediments that became clearly visible to him but were concealed from devotees who tried it first.

Money wasn’t the issue, for example, but adopting local culture and rituals was. Devotees sent by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta tried to fit in to, presumably, gain the trust of their hosts, and it didn’t work. Perhaps they thought that they were impervious to contamination but they were wrong. Of course we know that one must always maintain utmost humility and never think he can withstand material temptations on his own, but it’s quite another thing to learn this humility first hand, from actual failures.

Śrīla Prabhupāda saw it with his own eyes, devotees who trail-blazed it before him went down in flames. In retrospect, their sacrifice was necessary, I’m sure Kṛṣṇa has forgiven them and accepted their sacrifice even if it didn’t go as well as expected. Yes, hearts were affected, offenses were made, lots of other inauspicious things followed, but they tried it for Kṛṣṇa, for Lord Caitanya’s glory. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Lord had no grudge whatsoever and saw unfortunate consequences as an extraneous and unavoidable outcome. We need to know that Kṛṣṇa consciousness couldn’t be spread by fork wielding, tux wearing devotees speaking with posh accent. That was not so obvious then, someone had to volunteer and fail.

I think that’s enough for today, it’s a big topic, and I haven’t even gotten to Prabhupāda’s arrival in the West yet.

Vanity thought #1224. Geopolitics

Up until very recently I though of geopolitics as an extension of “real politics”, ie politicians acting out of self interest as members of their societies. I mean people elected someone to be a mayor but when a big real estate guy comes knocking on you door with campaign contribution promises you got to give his desires a bit more consideration than to a vote cast by an average nobody two years ago. With geopolitics, I thought, it’s just like this but on a bigger scale.

Then I read an article by George Friedman of Stratfor, the founder of a think tank that has been producing top notch analyses for almost two decades. This dude is all into strategic forecasting and he figured that real geopolitics defines the future better than anything else. By geopolitics he means countries interests based on their geographical locations. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Initially.

I mean, what is so special about US geography that makes it try to police the rest of the world? What makes China so special that makes it quietly buy half of Africa? What makes Russia so special to challenge US desire for global hegemony, which in itself doesn’t have obvious geographical roots.

One word answer – complexity. The world is not a simple, binary, black and white place. The currently observed interests might not display their geographical roots but they are there, one just have to trace them back to their origins. They are also very logical and very rational, almost inevitable, but more on that later.

Take France, for example. In the south it’s cut off from Spain by Pyrenees, in the west it’s separated from rest of Europe by Alps but there’s access to Italy along the coast and easy roll in to Germany, Belgium, and Holland from north-west. If you think about it, it all makes sense. Original western civilization spread from Italy so bottle-neck connection in the south and through Alps in the west means that once culture gets out into open, fertile planes it grows like crazy on it’s own with little feedback. If you think of modern, borderless politics then France, as a society and its culture, appears to be quite big and therefore influential in Europe but it’s always somewhat off center. French, therefore, are independent but also in tune with the rest of the continent, and, given the size of their country, comparable to their influence to Germany.

Friedman gave an example of Germany, btw, to show how geopolitics really work. Germany, being big and situated right in the middle of Europe, has to trade with everybody and keep balance between competing interests on all sides. Sometimes they might also get an idea that, given their central location, they are ought to control the rest of the continent, too. I mean that for Germans any particular interest, be it coming from French, British, or Russians, is of no paramount importance, it’s just one out of many they have to deal with everyday so they might feel they have the wherewithal to bring everyone together under one big German boot, sorry, roof.

Or take Britain. I’m not going to explain British empire but these days their interests and inspirations are purely geopolitical. They are in Europe but separated by the sea, which perfectly explains their love-hate affair with the rest of the continent. As soon as things go wrong they retreat, as soon as they want something they come back, and if things don’t go as they planned they can always fall back to their long time partner the US, which they never take seriously but always need anyway.

Russia’s situation is determined by geography as well. They want to be part of the West but western ideas take so long time to get to them that they always come down filtered, if not heavily censored, and always several steps too late. They also have absorbed large quantities of Asians of all stripes, which means they have to accept at least acceptance of Asian culture as part of their make up. They can’t say ideological no to Islam or Buddhism, they’ve got to find common values, share them, and live together.

This means that when westerners with their homogeneous experience come to lecture them Russians have to run their advice by their local Asians first and so they appear less than enthusiastic. There is also thousand and a half years split in Christian church that put Russians on the other side of ideological divide. They just can’t become European no matter what they try, geography and history works against them.

At this point I should point out that history is determined by geography, too, even more so than the present, so it all comes down to geopolitics in its true sense – policies guided by geography more than by anything else. George Friedman’s quote summarized it very well:

    ..there is no distinction between economic, political, military and technological affairs. They are convenient ways to organize departments, but in reality, they are simply a different and linked dimension of the nation-state and related socio-political activities.

It’s all very well, but my personal experience adds quite a bit, too. Over the time I noticed that the color of sand and dust collecting in my house is the same as the color of the soil outside. Duh! Obviously, but not in the bedroom, where dust is the color of discarded skin flakes.

First I noticed connection between the color of the soil and the colors used by people for pretty much everything was in Cambodia some fifteen years ago. I suddenly found myself in a place where everything was red,or at least had heavy red shades mixed to it. Sand was red, dust was red, roof top tiles were red, walls were painted orange, and clothes people wore had red and orange colors, too. All browns had the shades of red everywhere.

It was very different in the Northern Thailand, still in the same part of Asia but about a thousand kilometers to the north. Browns were gray and almost bluish there, just as was the soil, sand, and all the colors associated with their Lanna culture. To an average westerner all Asians have the same faces but you can’t mistake reddish brown Cambodians for blueish brown Lannanians. Well, people of Northern Thailand were not like Kṛṣṇa, their skin wasn’t blue, they were very white comparing to Cambodians, but this particular shade of brown was nevertheless everywhere you look.

Does it determine the way you behave? I don’t know how but Cambodians and Northern Thais are people of very different temperaments, too. Cambodians are people of tropical plains and forests, it always hot there, and so is the general temperament, while Northern Thais are people of the mountains. They don’t have snow there but at this time of the year they usually get frost and temperatures drop close to freezing point. In their behavior they are very different from Cambodians, they are sweet and reserved.

What does it have to do with my house? Nothing, it’s just that the color of outside dust reminded me of differences pronounced elsewhere. Friedman, at the time of writing of that article, was on his way to Moscow. Afterwards he wrote a report on his trip and he started it with describing how Moscow FEELS, which, according to him influences how people live.

Geography makes Russians resilient to pressure, they have to, they have no other choice. History makes them quite separate from the rest of the western civilization and unwelcome visits by Napoleon and Hitler make them feel defensive against intruders, too. When going gets tough, Russians get going, while in their normal state (three months of summer, I guess) they feel safe and under no threat, gathering strength to repel yet another assault by nature or by outsiders.

Friedman also noticed that being in trouble has become a default state of Russian psyche. Last decade of relative prosperity is viewed by them as an aberration, as a short summer, so they are fully prepared to tighten their belts and live through the winder of sanctions and dropping oil prices.

Okay, but what has it got to do with Kṛṣṇa consciousness? Quite a lot, actually, because most of the time we don’t notice our own conditioning nor the conditioning of others. We still think that people have their independence and act in the world as if they are in control of their actions. We, then, of course judge them for that, which leads to committing offenses, which leads to the lack of progress on devotional path.

What I mean to say is that we don’t see devotees doing things as not being responsible for their actions. We think they are to blame when, in fact, it is all guru’s mercy and just geography. This obviously needs examples or case studies but I don’t have time for that today, so maybe tomorrow.

Or let me put it this way – no one does things that don’t make sense to that person. Making sense, however, being logical and rational, by definition strips that person of independence. Rationality is not a personal subject, it’s absolute regardless of how you feel about it. Given same conditions and same background people of certain cultures will act in certain ways with little deviations, so it makes no sense to blame them for what they do naturally, according to their svabhāva, which is another misnomer because it’s imposed on people by material energy.

This means that we should just chant our lives away without being disturbed even by devotees doing apparently strange and unacceptable things.

Vanity thought #1223. NdGT

Earlier this year I reviewed every episode of TV show Cosmos and so when I came across another video with Neil deGrasse Tyson I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t a post-Cosmos appearance and he talked on completely different topics but it was nevertheless fascinating and thought provoking, and closely related to the subject of atheism I’ve been going on for about a week now.

The youtube video (below) is titled The Most Outstanding Fact of Life and A Fascinatingly Disturbing Thought but there were lots of smaller points in there to sparkle our brains.

But first – who is Neil deGrasse Tyson? He presents himself as a scientist, never forgetting to say things like “we, scientists.” but he is more of a “popularizer of science” than actual astrophysicist. His last paper was submitted in 1998, sixteen years ago, and he has been a showman since. Evil tongues say that even his doctorate is dodgy – he was kicked out of his first program and on his second attempt he was awarded the degree to keep that particular institution statistics up – they just couldn’t let someone to sit in the same class for three years without graduating. Official biographies, of course, disagree with evil tongues, so a grain of salt must be added. Actual factual astrophysicists also have no idea what exactly he has contributed to the field but that really doesn’t matter – he knows how science works and that’s more than enough for his current engagements.

As a “science communicator” he does a very good job and got a large and faithful following, hanging onto his each word or tweet. Even in that youtube video he comes across as a very likable and even charming guy. You naturally want to agree with that kind of people, devotees not excluded. We think we are “stronk” and our dedication to Kṛṣṇa cannot be shaken but meeting charismatic people is as dangerous as meeting women, we better stay away from them rather than test our devotion. Humility in face of challenges like that goes a long way.

As a science communicator he doesn’t need to do actual science and doesn’t have to submit himself to peer review and that leads to sloppiness. Internet is full of criticism of his ideas and presentations, he often gets caught saying all kinds of factual nonsense, checking his sources is not his forte, something I mentioned many times in those Cosmos reviews.

He got burned at stake for totally screwing the story of Giordano Bruno, for example. Not that he cares, but that particular episode got a fairly wide coverage. Well, in that case he could have blamed it on show producers and editors, he was just reading the script, but still. It’s appalling how they said all the right things like “Bruno was not a scientist” but buried them under heaps of expectations and general “here is the birth of modern science” exuberant delivery. Not cool.

That blog, btw, has some sort of NdGT fetish because they went after him on several more occasions, from misrepresenting history in another Cosmos episode about Hooke, Haley, and Newton, to making silly claims and origins of lb for pound or BC/AD for dating. It seems NdGT clearly loves to talk and does not left facts get in the way of his stories.

As far as popularizing science, it works, but whether it’s actual science that he presents is a different matter, which isn’t really important because those who will go into science will quickly find out for themselves, and it’s not like they will lose their faith in atheism just because NdGT slipped a couple of times. We, as devotees, however, should take note, because it’s one thing to have an intelligent opponent and it’s quite another to face someone who is ready to fool people if it suits his case. I mean that he doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously and cannot be trusted, everything he says needs to be double checked, and because he says quite a lot of different things it would become a thankless task. Better to avoid altogether, it’s only a showmanship, not actual arguments.

Anyway, in this particular video he talked about basic ingredients of the universe. Our life on Earth is carbon based and I, personally, had a vague idea that lives in other worlds can be based on any other element. We know that on the Sun bodies are made of fire, for example, maybe something like this would work in empirically observable universe, too. Nope, not according to Tyson. He very eloquently described uniqueness of carbon from chemical point of view. In the periodic system it takes a very sweet spot – it’s fairly simple and therefore very wide spread, and it’s very versatile in forming all kinds of molecules necessary for our kind of life.

Good point, and it goes to science. In the process, however, Tyson introduced panspermia, a hypothesis that life could be transmitted via meteors and he talked about it as if it was a settled thing. Granted, the possibility is there, and it’s a very interesting one, but it is not factual. He says that it’s plausible that long long ago, when there was life on Mars, some asteroids hit its surface with such force that they blew bits of Martian rock into space. These rocks could have space resistant bacteria on them and then landed here on Earth. It’s a stuff of science fiction, not science, and it comes equipped with the usual “we haven’t found yet but in the future we will” and “life is just a right combination of chemicals” but, despite of that NdGT is actually very close to the truth there.

Life DOES travel from planet to planet but, of course, it has nothing to do with meteors, though souls falling from heavenly planets down to Earth with drops of rain is pretty close.

There’s another case of irony in NdGT presentations – multiverse. It doesn’t feature in this video but it was included in Cosmos‘ Giordano Bruno episode. Bruno was seen as a lunatic and a heretic for insisting on all the stuff that came with it but it wasn’t actually his idea, he lifted it from one of his predecessors, Nicholas of Cusa. Nowadays multiverse is a stuff of mostly science fiction but Tyson again presents it as real science. Granted, real scientists lent some thought to this idea, too, but nothing serious came out of it, certainly nothing empirically verifiable. There’s simply no dat to base this hypothesis on, only imagination, and, of course, it’s true – there are innumerable universes coming out of the pores on Mahā-Viṣṇu’s body.

Proponents of mutliverse didn’t get the idea from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, of course, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Philosophically, our understanding of how it works is no different from theirs – there’s an infinite number of combinations the life can progress in other universes but they all follow the same set of laws so there are clear similarities.

Philosophy, btw, is another red flag on Tyson’s credibility – he doesn’t like it. He argues against it, says that’s its dead and useless, not that he would give up his PhD, doctor of philosophy title. Personally, I think it’s very dangerous because it lifts all restraints on his flight of imagination. Unaware of his restraints he naively thinks everything is possible just because science. Philosophy of science, however, is what should lead intelligent people to reject the whole idea of scientific progress as futile and nor worthy of wasting human form of life on. Here’s a blog article by on of NdGT’s friends trying to help him understand importance of philosophy but, apparently, he just don’t care, he is too busy chasing his next high, his next invention of yet another possibility for the next scientific revolution. He has no time to pause and consider real problems of life.

Finally, in the second part of the video Tyson talks about how only 1% of DNA difference elevates us, humans, over chimpanzees. What if another species, maybe even the same chimps, got another 1% change that would elevate them over us? What if living beings on other planets already have 1-10-50% advantage over humans? What if all we can so proudly state about our scientific achievements is learned by alien toddlers without any effort at all?

Again, he has no idea how close he is to the truth. We, as devotees, accept it as given and we follow the footsteps of those unlimitedly smart sages. They know the universe inside out, including everything that happens in each Kali yuga, and they conclude that simply chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa is the best for us. On that note – we have plenty of descriptions of Kali yuga in the scriptures but I don’t remember any credit given to science. Perhaps it’s because by Vedic standards our scientific achievements are, indeed, primitive. It’s not like they’ve never had rockets, Moon landings, or Rosetta Stone asteroid harpoons in previous Kali yugas. That happens, like, a thousand times in a day of Brahmā, and it always ends the same, every Kali yuga does.

Hopefully, understanding that last point should be enough for me to stop paying attention to people like Neil deGrassee Tyson and concentrate on chanting instead. But then what would I write my blog about?

Here’s the video:

Vanity thought #1222. The origin of madness

The first part of the Island of Knowledge is dedicated to a brief overview of the history of science from Ancient Greece to medieval times, though I haven’t got that far yet, and probably never will. I’m still in two minds about it – on one hand reading this book looks like a giant waste of time, on the other hand I also want to read author’s insights on quantum mechanics. He left a juicy bait out for me and I circle around it like a fish, not sure if I die in the end or not.

Quantum mechanics is a fascinating subject even if the math is impossible to decipher. One could say that we don’t need it to become Kṛṣṇa conscious but I would argue that if we are given this challenge we need to accept, not avoid it. Before QM devotees fought against science and empirical methods in general, then they fought against evolution, then against Moon landing. Atheists always present challenges for us and though strictly speaking we don’t need to answer them we always do. Why?

I think it’s because we need to confront our inner doubts. We need to know with a hundred percent certainty that there’s no alternative to Kṛṣṇa conscious point of view. Some of us are advanced enough not to care but we can see from articles submitted by devotees that many do. We do not generally express doubts but we publicly defeat them instead, which is just another side of the same coin of doubt. Pure devotees are indifferent either way but we are not there yet and this purity most likely comes from many lifetimes of cultivating exactly this kind of knowledge anyway. We can’t pretend to be more advanced than we really are so dealing with doubts is necessary and unavoidable, and that’s why I’m looking forward to reading up on Quantum mechanics.

What I find fascinating about this subject is that it, imo, it supports Kṛṣṇa consciousness in as much as material philosophy allows, that is it leads to the realization of the impersonal aspect of the Absolute. I believe that when one understands QM he naturally sees ridiculousness of atheism and all the scientific claims made these days to defeat religion. There’s only one step from there to devotion, and that is Kṛṣṇa’s mercy.

Of course in that sense we are always one step from bhakti but in our current position we still have tons of anarthas in our hearts to deal with while impersonal realization leads to freedom from material contamination. Either way, I think that if the opportunity to understand QM is there then I should take it as much as Kṛṣṇa allows. Maybe I’m wrong but I hope Kṛṣṇa would correct me if I go too far away.

Anyway, Ancient Greece has a special place in modern culture, it’s considered a cradle of western civilization and so there’s no wonder that atheists seek to find their roots there, too. It’s fertile ground in this sense – it serves all sides equally. Popular culture promotes Greece as a birthplace of democracy, liberty, freedoms, civil rights and atheism while Christianity lifted their entire philosophical foundation there. Funny how the same authors can be interpreted as leading to Christ and to atheism at the same time, just by different people, but that’s what happened.

In this book the process was roughly as follows: Babylonians were observant of the nature and noticed its cyclical character. Naturally, in a cyclical world what dies must be born again, and unpredictable nature must be driven by multiple gods who we needed to understand. In Ancient Greece, however, the first philosophers were born and, instead of gods, they, for the first time in history, decided to study the universe on the basis of logic and arguments.

In our view this is ridiculous, of course. Ancient Greeks haven’t invented anything that wasn’t there in Upaniṣads and Vedanta, least of all logic and argumentation. Panini, who, according to modern science lived around the same time as first Greek philosophers, compiled grammar system with four thousand logical rules that no one in the west was able to come even close to for the next two and a half thousand years. The problem for atheists here is whether to accept that he had written all those rules down or held them in memory. According to them primitive Indians of those days didn’t have written scripts yet, and if they did, they borrowed them from Middle Eastern cultures, so they can’t admit that Pāṇini’s grammar was describing a written language. Nor can they admit that Pāṇini and all his followers kept all these rules in their heads, ‘cos that doesn’t sound primitive enough either. But yeah, no one understood logic before Greeks /s.

So, Greeks invented rationality, and rational thinking sees the universe as evolving. They argued about the sources, the forms, the substances, but there was no cyclical motions to it, it’s all from ignorance to knowledge. Abrahamic religions of the same area naturally, then, proposed a linear universe, from creation to the second coming, no rebirths, no reincarnation, nothing.

At this point the author gives a little example of how desire for rebirth is, indeed, the most primitive form of human knowledge – he gives an example of his six year old son who grapples with the issue of death, he won’t accept it’s finality, he hopes for the return of the departed, silly child. So there it is – really really primitive belief in reincarnation superseded by Christianity, superseded by atheism. We, Hare Kṛṣṇas, all the Hindus and Buddhists, are not any smarter than a six year old son of an atheist. Nice..

As I said, to the author, logic, questioning, and argumentation started in Ancient Greece, as opposed to relying on mythology. “All is One” understanding of the universe was invented by Greeks, too, as opposed to pantheistic mythology that didn’t see unity in nature. Greeks were also the first democrats – giving everybody an equal right to propose their own understanding of the world, and then accept the best among many. There’s also a poem, circa 50 BC, that looks like the first appearance of atheism. Pythagoreans were also the first to displace the Earth from the center of the universe, they “invented” some sort of fire around which everything revolves, which eventually led to Helio centric model of the solar system.

And it all started there, in Ancient Greece. I don’t know what to say about. I know that Abrahamic religions were just an offshot of an offshot of the Vedic culture – first Zoroaster got involved in inter-demigods rivalry, not even between devas and asuras, and got lost in taking sides and seeing everything as dualistic, as opposed to one Brahman being behind it all, and then Jews took one part of that struggle and made a big deal out of it, completely oblivious to the larger history of the universe. All their religion is based on the desire to eventually prevail over an enemy, “good God” over “evil Satan”, and so there’s only one direction to their history and only one God at play there. No wonder they made him look like an unstable psychopath in the Old Testament, ready to go off the rails and kill everyone in his sight over every little thing.

Perhaps it was Greeks who tempered him down and made him look like a proper God, creator and the controller of the entire universe instead of a patron of one of Middle Eastern tribes. The context of the Vedic culture, however, was lost forever. Reincarnation was lost, pantheism was lost, conflicts between devas and asuras were lost, Brahman was lost, what to speak of the Lord manifesting His pastimes here from time to time.

In short, atheism was born of ignorance and it fortified itself among ignorant people, and now it’s very hard to untangle that knot and trace it back to its roots. As for their questions to religion – it always reminds me of the saying “one fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer”. And as for ourselves, if we know where atheism comes from we can understand that those Greeks were just victims of the circumstance and they did the best they could in their position, but it’s never going to be good enough compared to the original repository of knowledge – the Vedas. Kali Yuga, that’s all.

Vanity thought #1221. Atheistic assumptions

There has been a war on religion going on for some time, like for the past hundred years or so, but it has really intensified since the turn of this century and the new angle of attack is fairly modern in its nature and its arguments.

Americans are leading the way, as usual, but they are also the only ones to really care. In the rest of the world the idea of converting people to your world view is seen as so last century and they can’t be bothered to hunt a few remaining Christians. America, however is the most religious country in the West and Christians there have been actually making ground against science. They went about it in a democratic way – by voting it out and voting creationism in.

Atheists resorted to similarly unconventional methods – media, especially the internet, and the power of ridicule. Forget arguments and any resemblance of dedication to rationality and facts, they are in full propaganda mode. They also figured out that they should focus their attack on the young people and so they employ the tools youngsters would appreciate. Atheism, therefore, presents itself as cool, exciting, and cutting edge, as compared to dinosaur like Christian preacher relics.

I’m not an adolescent any more and so their arguments are not directed at people like me, and I’m not sure we should battle them by trying to outcool them on the mobile. I’m not sure we need to battle sarcasm with more sarcasm and twisting facts of our own. Christians think it’s perfectly okay and so start clubs for girls who won’t have sex before marriage, or start Christian rock bands but I’m not sure if it’s really helping. Religiously inclined youth certainly needs outlets to express their desires and aspirations, like we have prasādam and kīrtans, but that is not the same as trying to outdo demons on their own turf.

Maybe our new fangled festivals of colors or bhakti fest circuits are necessary to keep general population interested but I don’t see why they would appeal to established devotees. Even some kīrtana melās seem to be directed more at personal sense gratification than at genuine glorification of the Holy Name, but that is getting off topic.

The point I was trying to make is that instead of fighting new wave of atheism on its own terms – in a mud pit – we should make sure that their actual arguments do not find sympathy among serious seekers of truth. I think we should learn to see beyond the facade and expose underlying contradictions instead of trying to outcharm Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example. More on NdGT in a couple of days.

Back to the Island of Knowledge, yesterday I got to the end of the introduction, today it’s turn of the first couple of chapters that focus on gradual emergence of science in the ancient world. The author mentions existence of other religions in different parts of the world but he really means Ancient Greece, because that’s where modern science got its roots from. Okay.

The opening of the first chapter is remarkable.

    Can we make sense of the world without belief? This is a central question behind the science and faith dichotomy, one that informs how an individual chooses to relate to the world.

Notice how the word “dichotomy” is slipped in as if it was an axiom? There was no such dichotomy for over two thousand years and when it emerged about a hundred years ago it was quickly defeated for being a nonsense that it is, but this is the staple argument of modern day atheists. For some reason they absolutely must make science and religion into eternal enemies, completely incompatible with each other.

The book then goes on to muddle the matter a bit by drawing similarities between religious and scientific approach to answering exactly the same questions. Here another assumption is quietly slipped in – that both science and religion are meant to explain reality. They aren’t. Religions are meant to engage people in Lord’s service, whether they come with explanations of reality or not is not the point.

Of course all religions try to explain reality but they also all promise to provide believers with material comfort, provide answers to people’s prayers. When people want answers to their own prayers they want satisfaction of their own desires, and it has nothing to do with religion. When they pray for daily bread we understand their religion to be tinged with karma-kanda, and when they want to understand the world it’s a tinge of jñāna. Both should be rejected but both are also necessary to keep neophytes on the hook, no one starts off as a pure devotee.

Atheists, however, assume that we are just like them, we want exactly the same things and value exactly the same values. Those who promote science assume that we go into religion for the same reasons they study physics – to understand how the world works. Parts of us do, we have the presence of the same quest in our minds, too, but, ultimately, we just want Kṛṣṇa to be happy.

By reducing search for God to search for knowledge atheists create a strawman religion that they then proceed to defeat. Their next argument is that science is so much better at understanding the world that only fools would stick with religious myths. They are partly correct and we can’t dismiss this argument in absolute terms, which makes us look weak by modern expectations where everything must be absolutely awesome, but we are still right.

Fact is, in Kali Yuga we can’t understand the world the way Vedic sages did and science, therefore, does have an advantage. We can’t chant mantras to ignite fire, for example, what to speak of demonstrating yoga siddhis or flying vimānas, so we accept scientific substitutes in the form of airplanes or TV and the internet. This doesn’t mean that Vedic sages were not right or were not superior.

If our goal was to replicate their success then, perhaps, we would be better off with science, but it isn’t and, therefore, we just shrug our shoulders and keep on chanting. Jñāna is not our goal, if we don’t get enough of it to favorably compare with science we don’t mind, we’d be fools to chase that dream anyway, as Kṛṣṇa explained in Bhagavad Gīta.

Moving on, as I said, author’s views on religion are primitive, he treats religion as primitive science, trying to answer the same questions but with severely limited knowledge. Gods, in his view, were invented for practical as well as psychological reasons. People feared nature, he says, and they were afraid to be alone in the face of its great power so they invented personalities behind forces of nature that could be reasoned, negotiated with and, if necessary, taken shelter of.

This is just one of the many scenarios of how religions came into being offered by modern atheists. We, OTOH, say that it was Gods who reached out to humans and their presence was a given then but, unfortunately, practically impossible now, and it had little to do with actual religion – selfless and causeless service to the Supreme. We are not talking about the same thing, again.

There is always the question of mythology. We take Vedic stories are true, atheists insist that they were fabrication from start to finish. There’s a quote given in the book that touches on this (emphasis mine):

    For the Australian as well as for the Chinese, the Hindu and the European peasant, the myths are…

Peasants? Really? Only Hindu peasants believed in Purāṇas? And brāhmaṇas? Is it some giant conspiracy where millions of brāhmaṇas know that stories they feed to peasants are fake? Or is it only modern brāhmaṇas who fell for this but in ancient times they knew the deal and invented religions to keep peasants under control while having not a shred of faith themselves? Really?

The quote continues, btw:

    … the myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell him about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the “historical situation.”

Turns out it’s a fairly accurate description of the process, expect it’s the other way around – “myths” are true because they DO provide contact with “sacred” and DO help people to transcend their profane “historical situation”. It still works even for us, perhaps better than ever because it’s the only method of self-realization that still works in Kali Yuga.

So, what I tried to demonstrate today is how modern atheists construct a strawman religion, fight it, and claim victory. Strawman argument is one of the logical fallacies that are quite popular in that kind of circles so, perhaps, it would help to use a familiar term here.

Vanity thought #1220. Spiritual Luddites

Added clarification about Newton and limited universe

The author of The Island of Knowledge might be a very knowledgeable person himself, holding multiple degrees and working at prestigious universities, writing books etc. but when it comes to spiritual matters he looks completely shallow and out of depth. For a book extolling virtues of atheism he should know something about religions beyond a few simplistic, Christianity based notions which look naive even to Christians themselves.

There’s, of course, a whole world out there besides Christianity, and any serious writer should be fairly cognizant of all major traditions but that appears to be too much to ask from self-proclaimed “popularizers” of science, no matter how many degrees they hold. They never seem to have a place in their brains to learn fundamentals of any religion besides Christianity, but that doesn’t stop them from pontificating on deficiencies of religions, of course. Fools leading the fools indeed.

When Marcelo Gleiser mentioned Brahman I thought this book would be an exception but I was wrong. Actually, Brahman was introduced quite nicely, in a paragraph about limits of scientific endeavors. There’s a lot that science doesn’t know and, possibly, can’t know. The author here deals with inability of science to grasp the “ultimate reality” and he says that he still talks about knowable, physical reality, not God. He excluded God as being ungraspable by definition and listed Brahman as a kind of transcendental reality that is beyond the reach of empirical tools. Great, but then it went downhill from there.

First, mentioning Brahman (and also Tao and nirvana) as transcendental reality is not that great display of knowledge. It’s okay for the purpose here but Brahman ended as being juxtaposed to personal God, which is, of course, unacceptable to us. The bulk of Hindu vaiṣṇavas might let it go but, strictly speaking, it should be unacceptable to all vaiṣṇava traditions regardless of the flavor of dvaita they profess. The relationship is complicated, we should admit, but excluding personal God from Vedic tradition altogether is still ignorant. The author probably knows Hinduism from the likes of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

There’s another distinction here that totally eluded the author – between transcended and supernatural. To science, and to myself before meeting devotees, it was all the same, too, so I understand author’s confusion but that doesn’t excuse the ignorance. A lot of supernatural stuff has nothing to do with spirituality at all, it might blow the minds of new agey potheads but chakras, auras, prana, etc are all material phenomena. There are also all kinds of gods in all sorts of religious traditions who are as materially conditioned as us humans. Śrīla Prabhupāda was correct in using the term “demigods” here. He got a lot of rap from critics for inventing it but it places these devas exactly where they are – as material administrators of the universe who can’t even approach Lord Viṣṇu on their own.

Having said that, authors critical approach to science is still remarkable. In the last paragraph of the introduction he drops another bombshell – we don’t know the difference between subject and object, we don’t know where “I” is, where it ends, and where the outside world begins.

It’s a big admission that usually escapes promoters of science. They all talk about science as a tool for us to study the world but what is this “us”? On what grounds do we see ourselves as subjects, as knowers, as being distinctly different from the object of our knowledge? The author rightfully calls the separation artificial but doesn’t explain exactly why. I’m not sure I can express it correctly either, but it has to do with mechanical nature of our brains which makes them behave as parts of and under the laws of the universe they are supposed to study.

Mechanical brains can’t produce anything independently, they do not produce any truly original thoughts, only reactions to external stimuli filtered through their memories. Sometimes people have visions or get help from Goddess Sarasvatī but this kind of revelation is supernatural only by the standards of science, and visions are presumed to be mechanical, too. Just electrons bouncing off neurons or something.

After stating that, however, the author again retreats to the safety of science. First he reduces artificial separation of subject and object to people simply having different experiences and then brings up science as a universal tool to unite everybody around, as some sort of “objective” knowledge. Well, as I said, our innate subjectivity is not about being different, it’s about being subjective to the same nature we intend to study “objectively”.

This kind of one step forward one step back is characteristic of all of author’s insights into inner workings of science. For example, the author admits that lots of people understand his critical arguments but they call him defeatist for that. “What’s the point of trying to expand our knowledge if it leads to expansion of our ignorance?” The author promises to answer that question and says that his approach, rather than being defeatist, fills him with inspiration to know more, and he calls the idea of finding the ultimate truth a downer. I already mentioned it yesterday – modern, atheistic science has dismissed man’s eternal quest for Absolute Truth and instead lures us with taste of temporary victories. This will never satisfy the soul but popularizers of science shut themselves out from big aspirations like that.

What’s the difference between a top scientist jumping with joy after figuring out a complex problem and a random grandma feeling all up to date after discovering what a mysterious button in her computer does? It probably opens up another menu with tons of options she will never have time to understand.

Another example is the matter of belief. The author compares religions belief with what is practiced by scientists and finds no principal difference. Fine, and very helpful to our case, but it’s not how we actually believe in our spiritual lives.

He assumes that people use beliefs to fill gaps in their knowledge. There’s more to say on his approach to “mythology” but I’ll leave that for another day. For now I’ll just focus on this particular aspect of belief, using it to answer the same questions that scientists do. Based on this assumption he looks at several examples of scientists relying on their own beliefs (sans God) that were essential to their discoveries.

Newton believed that his theory, which he developed from observing the solar system, should be applied to the rest of the cosmos. “Believed” being the key word here – in authors’ view it’s what scientists subconsciously assume when developing any new theories. There was no rational reason for Newton to assume that laws observed here work exactly the same way for the distant stars. Now we know that they don’t, btw.

Interestingly, Newton lived in an Earth centric universe. Still, he argued that, due to gravity, all celestial bodies in a limited universe would eventually collapse on each other. So he concluded that for stars to be spread around the space, the space must be unlimited. That’s how the idea of unlimited universe first came into science, before that the universe was contained and covered by several layers of stuff, with God’s kingdom being right outside of it edit: there was, however, Nicholas of Cusa who talked about unlimited cosmos centuries before, and he made cardinal.

Einstein did the similar thing, expanded his theory to the rest of the universe, but instead of unlimited cosmos he proposed a “cosmological constant”, At the time his theory of relativity was tested only within solar system and that cosmological constant was only an idea, he believed it would work but had no experimental basis for its existence.

“Cosmological constant” still exists but it plays an entirely different role from that which Einstein intended it for.

So yes, it seems scientists naturally believe all kinds of stuff about their theories, and it’s a great point, but it’s not the same kind of belief as practiced in spiritual pursuits. It’s not the same faith that leads people to God, doesn’t the author know that?

As I said, there are more examples of primitive understanding of religion in this book, but I’ll leave them for another day.

Vanity thought #1219. Sinking in ignorance

Continuing on The Island of Knowledge book, yesterday I got to the quantum mechanics bit so I’ll start from there today.

For the past hundred years scientists have been busy discovering and categorizing elementary particles but the term is misleading – we call the elementary because we don’t know if they are made of anything smaller. Two hundred years ago molecules were elementary, a hundred years ago atoms were elementary, when I went to school protons, neutrons and electrons were elementary.

Now they’ve confirmed existence of the Higgs Boson but when I heard that it’s hundred times heavier than a proton I can’t associate it in my mind with “elementary” anymore. It won’t be long, maybe another few decades and another massive particle accelerator, and what is called elementary today won’t be so anymore.

But the most interesting point about particle physics the book makes is comparing them to studying oranges. We peel the oranges, tear apart the slices, cut them, find seeds inside and so on. That’s not what we do with particles, however. If particle physics experiments were applied to oranges we would be shooting fruit from cannons and then examining the debris, the faster the speed with which they are smashed the better. Somehow the author claimed that it would be a legitimate and useful method but I’m still laughing at this tasty metaphor to take his conclusion seriously.

In any case, does Higgs Boson’s case undermine arguments against particle physics or is it a one off thing? Higgs predicted it long time ago and it took fifty years to finally set up a rig powerful enough to detect it. So it happened, but does it undermine the argument that our theories are driven by our tools, not only by our brains. Maybe we can’t use absolute terms to describe this dependency, as is usually done in hive minds of the digital age, but it doesn’t make the argument invalid. We can still say that Higgs wouldn’t have suggested existence of his particle if not for unexplained experimental results, or that he wouldn’t have even thought of if not for invention of particle accelerators a few decades earlier.

The book makes a similar argument but spreads it over several pages. Invention of the telescope, for example, determined direction of astronomy for the next several hundred years. There’s also a fundamental question of what the reality is. One can examine an object with his eyes, touch it with his hands, and form a reasonable opinion about it. Another might employ tools like microscopes and spectroscopes to determine its composition on molecular lever and form his own opinion of the “reality”. Both will be correct and we can compare their knowledge but we should also note that in both cases this “reality” is relative, not absolute, and we must ask if “ultimate reality” even exists, and if it does, would it be possible to ever grasp it?

That’s just another way or repeating Śrīla Prabhupāda’s old argument about science always claiming to know things only to deny them a short while later. While the argument itself is very simple, seeing it at work in multiple instances and applying it to various disciplines should help us understand it on a far deeper level.

Of course we can always say “I don’t trust science, it always changes its mind” but if we look at their actual “pramāṇa” it always sounds convincing, so, at least for me, we have to go on faith that it will be changed later. There are plenty of times when it doesn’t, btw, because science deploys “compatibility” criterion – any new theory must explain currently held knowledge. In some cases it would explain it differently but in other cases it would simply put our current knowledge in different perspective, meaning it would still be true but we would simply know it better and deeper. Newton mechanics, for example, are still correct for our everyday life even though we long replaced Newton’s with Einstein’s relativity. Point is, knowing why and how science MUST change its views gives me better peace of mind than simply parroting that it eventually will.

I can cite an example of lack of faith in Prabhupāda’s explanation of Moon landing. Some devotees firmly believe his words, some doubt them, some try to explain them through conspiracy theories, many prefer not to think about it, and some openly reject it. Knowing how science generally works puts my own mind at ease here, I just don’t consider Moon landing a legitimate disagreement anymore. It’s just a pile of turds for monkeys to throw at each other, a non-question. It should be put in a completely different frame where we can see WHY they think they went and why Prabhupāda was sure they didn’t, and why Prabhupāda was right regardless of what they think, but I’m digressing.

Another major theme going through the book is the enormous amount of stuff that remains unseen at any given moment, ie the size of the ocean around or island of knowledge. Scientists look at what they know and it understandably pleases them but we, as devotees, should remind them to look at what they don’t know and learn to deal with that. Their answer is to get enthusiastic about it, get excited by the stuff they can discover next, but we, as devotees, should offer them to look at the big picture.

They can’t know it all, they are just scratching the itch without addressing the underlying disease. Their pleasure is understandable but it is also temporary and unsatisfying in the end. Chewing the chewed, as Prabhupāda would say, referring to Prahlāda Mahārāja. It’s no different from having sex or eating three times a day – they think that science makes them human but it’s just as animalistic activity as mating or sleeping and, despite science claims, it does not address humanity’s real problems.

We say that real problems are birth, death, old age, and disease, scientists do not see it that way, but they also don’t see that their science doesn’t achieve their own stated goals either – it cannot give them “ultimate knowledge”. Stephen Hawking has been pushing for the ultimate theory of everything, uniting quantum mechanics with astrophysics, for nearly half a century now, but it cannot exist as a matter of principle. They might unite the formulas for a while but it won’t be a theory of EVERYTHING, it would rather reveal lots of stuff that it doesn’t even begin to cover.

Thing is, science has made a major leap from observable Newtonian mechanics to quantum theory that makes absolutely no sense in terms of our everyday experiences, but it hasn’t made a similar leap in understanding that we should approach science as a study of infinity. In this sense science still operates in medieval terms, hoping to discover the “ultimate reality” any day now.

Yes, some have made progress from chasing the ultimate to enjoying the process but it’s only the first step towards realization of futility of their attempts. Despite having such big brains they still think that because it feels good it makes it okay. They still haven’t accepted that their incremental “results” do not satisfy humans’ innate desire for the Absolute Truth. They still haven’t accepted that science can’t satisfy it even though scientific progress started out that way. That’s what the atheists claim, that science can fully replace religion. How can it if it reduced itself to temporary highs from temporary reliefs?

As usual – their apparently logical and rational arguments ultimately contradict themselves, which never happens in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we should add.

Vanity thought #1218. Island of knowledge

There’s a new book out (as if it’s actually news) called “The Island of Knowledge: The limits of Science and the Search for Meaning” by one Marcelo Gleiser. He is a Brazilian physicist turned science popularizer and this is the latest of his books on the subject. I haven’t read any previous ones and so far have covered less than the quarter The Island of Knowledge but that won’t stop me from commenting on it, for several reasons.

First, I don’t believe people reviewing books for a living actually read them, they know how to form an opinion in the quickest way possible. If they don’t need to read the whole book, why I should I? And I’m not even a reviewer or a critic, I just found something interesting from Kṛṣṇa consciousness POV, I’m not interested in the rest, why should I read it then?

Secondly, I’ve read reviews by people who allegedly “studied” the whole book and then summed up the main points. These points are great on their own and if they do not correctly reflect book’s content, what do I care? It’s not a recommendation to buy or not to buy, to read or not to read, it’s not a critique of this “Marcelo Gleiser” either, his name is just a sequence of letters to me, there’s nothing personal there. I want to discuss ideas, not people.

Thirdly, lots of authors are being paid by the number of words or maybe by the number of pages. They intentionally bloat their material even if all they have to say can be easily compressed into a paragraph. Someone left a comment on Amazon complaining exactly about this – all the meat is in the introduction and the rest is just meandering that doesn’t add anything. I’ve read the introduction so I’m alright.

Fourthly, when the author goes through two and a half thousand years of history of science in less than one hundred pages he can offer only a brief overview, or rather select only one aspect that can be easily challenged by people with deeper knowledge of the subject. Historical facts are especially prone to multiple interpretations, none of which is of any use to us as devotees.

Why am I still counting these paragraphs? Because I believe these same reasons can be applied to any book out there and, at least for me, this is how I usually approach all of them, so these limitations must be stated in the beginning to explain where I am coming from.

So, the meat – the title really says it all – what is passed as science is only an island of knowledge.

It’s a beautiful metaphor and once you think about it for a while it becomes clear on its own, no extra information is necessary, it’s like the sound Oṃ in this sense.

Knowledge is like an island surrounded by an ocean of, guess what? – ignorance, and as the island grows, so grows it’s shoreline, the perimeter, amount of stuff on the periphery of science that we know we don’t know. We also can’t estimate the size of the surrounding ocean at all.

That’s all there is to it, really. Thinking about it some more and looking at historical examples only adds more fun and helps digest this idea in full, but the gist of it is already there in that phrase – the island of knowledge.

As devotees we can challenge that this knowledge is actually ignorance but let’s not be so dismissive right from the start. Direct observation is a legitimate tool of acquiring knowledge even if in our tradition it comes last on the priority list. We know limitations of this pramāṇa and so does the author, which is why I got interested in this book in the first place – to me it looks like a very sober description of what passes as science these days, a rare critical view that we can quote back to atheists, never mind that it ends with “but let’s do it anyway” delusion.

Devotees often cite Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to attack garden variety atheists who believe scientific progress is all about fairness and rationality. The Island can be used in a similar fashion – we can explain deficiencies of science as viewed by the best of the atheists themselves (Gleiser is an avowed non-believer).

What are these limitations anyway? Let’s start with measurement itself.

Truth is, we can’t measure anything precisely as a matter of principle, we can only give an approximation to the nearest tick on our scale. There’s a surprising example of this in what is generally thought of as epitome of accuracy – computers doing calculations. They work perfectly fine when dealing with integers, 1+2 kind of stuff, but once they get to decimals they become weird.

Loot at this simple command in C, probably the most popular computer language:

    printf (” %.20f \n”, 3.6);

It tells the computer to print number 3.6 formatted to 20 digits after the decimal point (and start a new line – \n).

The result should be 3.60000000000000000000, of course, but in reality it’s 3.60000000000000008882, and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just how things are. Formatting to fifty digits gives 3.60000000000000008881784197001252323389053344726562 instead of 3.6 with lots of zeros.

There are clever ways of overcome these “floating point problems”, just look at this old paper, from 1991, that comes near the top of search results. Scroll down the page to see how complex it all gets, and this is what every computer scientist was expected to know twenty five years ago, before Windows was invented.

Anyway, back to The Island, increasing resolution of our microscopes or zoom of our telescopes makes us think that we are getting closer and closer to seeing the limit, to seeing the last thing there’s there to see, but infinity means that there’s infinite times more stuff still outside our reach. Is there the smallest possible particle? Is there the border of the universe? Is there a limit to all there is to know?

In the past hundred years we increased the power of particle accelerators million fold and now we can see stuff that was simply unthinkable back then. Will it change in the next one hundred years? Most certainly yes, there will be more stuff to study but the end will never be near – the shoreline of our island of knowledge will continue to grow.

I wish I could say it would continue to grow exponentially but, as a side point, I’m getting annoyed with these metaphors. This desire for absolute, smashing arguments is seen everywhere, no one offers a half argument which can offer a marginal advantage over the opposing view. That’s never enough, it is all or nothing, the growth must be exponential or it’s not impressive enough. Everything in our lives must be absolute and mind blowing, everything we see promises a life changing revolution (thank Steve Jobs).

Still, just think about it – we increased the power of our particle accelerators million fold but what have we found? A dozen or so insignificant things no one remembers the names of, save for Higgs Boson, and, despite Higgs Boson confirmation, most of our knowledge of subatomic particles and their behavior is theoretical, or, in other words, “highly speculative”.

The Island gives a nice example of difficulties in studying quantum physics but I’ll leave it for tomorrow, there’s no way I’ll cover everything I want to say about this book in one day.

So far, besides the title – we can’t actually measure anything, only approximate things to stop our brains from hurting too much, and, as we increase accuracy of our tools, we discover more and more stuff that becomes increasingly difficult to actually know, but more on that tomorrow.