“Why don’t you write a post about your work in India?” is what Ulrike Reinhard wrote to Ulrich (Yours Truly) at Reinventing the Sacred. “I will — in about 10 days, once the more immediate deadlines have been attended to” is what Yours Truly replied. Eventually this is what I wrote:
Because of the recent death of Albert Hofmann, LSD is once again in the news, so I may as well start with that. Like many of my generation, I experimented with the drug in the late 60s, and this reduced to rubble my earlier materialist and atheist convictions. I also lost my previous interest in physics and astronomy and became interested instead in Indian philosophy and spirituality. This is how I ended up in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India.
I arrived with a common misconception about Indian spirituality, fostered by Buddhist and Advaita literature (”Brahman is real, the world is a lie.” — Shankara). While reading the works of Sri Aurobindo (and having some quite extraordinary experiences, but that’s an aside) I realized the great importance Sri Aurobindo attaches to the material world, and my old interest in physics returned. Feeling the need to complement his insights into the nature of Nature with whatever additional light physics can throw on the subject, I returned to Germany, my native country, and enrolled in the University of Göttingen. During a subsequent stint at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore it became clear to me that academia couldn’t take my personal quest much farther, and so I settled in Pondicherry for good.
The freedom I enjoy since then has enabled me to pursue the questions that interested me most, beginning with the place of physics in a spiritually conceived world. From C. F. von Weizsäcker (The Unity of Nature) I learned about the importance of Kant. Kant conceived of a “pure physics,” which contained nothing but the preconditions of the possibility of science. Von Weizsäcker surmised that all fundamental physics might be of this nature. This suggested to me that all of physics might be (ontological rather than epistemological) preconditions of the possibility of a particular kind of world. Which kind?
According to Sri Aurobindo (and the Indian spiritual tradition at large), ultimate reality — I call it UR, which also suggests the sense of the German prefix “ur” — relates to the world (i) as the substance that constitutes it, (ii) as a consciousness that contains it, and (iii) as an infinite joy that expresses and experiences itself in it.
The reason this is not obvious is that, in this particular world of ours, UR is “playing Houdini.” Evolution is in a certain respect the inverse of an antecedent involution. The original creative process begins with this infinite joy, which develops expressive ideas, which command a formative force, which shapes revealing forms. The last — the formative force (prana or life) — is the first to evolve. The ideative faculty (manas or mind) is next. What is yet to evolve, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the power of infinite joy to cast itself into expressive forms and to experience itself in all forms (vijnana or supermind).
So I asked myself, what are the preconditions of an evolutionary manifestation of UR? I arrived at the answer that the well-established laws of physics — the so-called Standard Model plus General Relativity — are exactly what is needed to set the stage for the adventure of evolution. You may characterize my reasoning as anthropic, except that this word, deriving as it does from the Greek word for man, is extremely ill-chosen. According to Sri Aurobindo, “man is a transitional being; he is not final… Man’s greatness is not in what he is, but in what he makes possible.” The evolution of the supermind goes hand in hand with the emergence of a new species, which will differ more from the human species than this differs from any other organism.
Subsequently I realized that the well-established laws of physics can be deduced from a much weaker assumption — the weakest possible in fact: they are their own consistency conditions. Quantum mechanics, the fundamental theoretical framework of physics, presupposes measurements — though some people still resist the obvious — and I was able to show that the existence of measurements presupposes all of those laws, at least as effective theories (which is how physicists think of them anyway).
This is a humbling conclusion, for it means that those theories are essentially tautological — except for one thing: their validity is only guaranteed if I assume that things that have spatial extent are composed of things that lack spatial extent. This is the sole nontrivial input and the only real mystery: why are “ordinary things” — things that “occupy space” — made of things that don’t (such as quarks and leptons)?
The reason this is so is that the existence of an (apparent) multitude of formless things — which naturally lack spatial extent — is a direct consequence of the involution that has set the stage for the adventure of evolution. And why “apparent”? Because the relations between the “many” are actually self-relations — relations between UR and UR.
Now if I haven’t completely befuddled you, there’s more where this came from.