The Experimental Basis


XIII.24 By meditation, some see the Self in the self by the self.

VI.27 Supreme bliss comes to the yogin who is pure,

passion laid to rest, his mind stilled; he becomes Brahman.

The Gītā is a textbook of yoga (a word which has also the sense of ‘method’ and ‘addition’). It is not an intellectual or religious analysis ending up in blind belief or disbelief.

The ancient Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad of at least 600 BC declared: ‘To this day whoever thus knows It as “I am Brahman” becomes universal.’ Śaṅkara, over a thousand years later, commented: ‘Some might think that they were gods in those days with wonderful powers, whereas the weak mortals of today could never do it. But that is not so. Brahman is the Self of all beings, and their apparent differences in power are illusory.’ Over a thousand years later still, Dr Shastri gave the same assurance: ‘Through the holy yoga, anyone who is one-pointedly determined will attain God-realization.’

Some modern readers do not understand the force of an experimental tradition. They say there are contradictions in the Gītā, and central concepts which merely reflect ideas of the day. So an ancient text like this should be sifted critically, rejecting, for instance, the contradictions, but retaining at least provisionally what we think has value for modern conditions. Such critics suffer from a fallacy, not so much logical as psychological, which can be called the Fallacy of Fluctuating Premises. They base their criticisms of yoga on premises which they do not, and cannot, accept when examining their present-day conclusions. The Fallacy can be illustrated from the history of the theory of light.

Newton in the eighteenth century suggested that light was a stream of corpuscles; Thomas Young at the beginning of the nineteenth century demonstrated the phenomenon of diffraction, which seemed to establish an old wave theory, which had lost out to Newton. There was a heated debate: Young was even accused of lack of patriotism in opposing Newton’s theory The corpuscular school and the wave school were totally opposed. In his great mid-century works like The History of the Inductive Sciences, William Whewell pointed out that the wave theory could explain problems not even thought of when it was first proposed, whereas the corpuscular theory had to be repeatedly adapted to meet new evidence. This, he remarked, is a great test of the validity of a theory. He admitted that some English scientists (he had just invented the word), working with very weak sources of light, were still opposed. But there was no doubt (he concluded) that the difficulties they pointed out would be due simply to incidental experimental error, and all the younger men would accept the wave theory.

This indeed happened: the wave theory held the field till the beginning of the twentieth century. Then came the discovery of the photoelectric effect (working also with very weak sources of light), and its Nobel Prize-winning explanation by Einstein. Light was now analysed as a stream of particles – photons. But diffraction could not be denied. Light had a dual nature: wave-like and particle-like. Numerous other experiments extended this to electron beams, and even neutron beams. A fundamental anomaly appeared at the heart of physics: with waves of like nature, when a peak meets a trough they can annihilate each other, but not so with like particles.

It is a contradiction, as Einstein repeatedly calls it in his book The Evolution of Physics. But experiments do not contradict each other: it is ideas about them which contradict. These last are often based on unconscious extension of childhood experiences, with, for instance, seawaves and pebbles. We have to be prepared to give up nineteenth-century mechanistic deterministic preconceptions.

The experiments in yoga are performed and repeated: they are accepted as they stand. They are not to be criticized on the basis of nineteenth-century concepts, supposedly modem and scientific, but in fact long ago discarded.

Yoga has the advantage that it can be practised, and confirmed, in nearly every human life: it is not a question of reading about proceedings in distant laboratories.

A second common occasion of the Fallacy of Fluctuating Premises comes in regard to reported experiences in yoga. The Mephistopheles in most people takes a text like Gītā XIII.32, which refers to the Self as space-like. He thumps his fist on the table, looks at it, and says: ‘Rather difficult to imagine this as space, isn’t it?’

Here is an artist’s impression of the atoms on the point of a needle. The doubter may be asked: ‘Do you believe your body consists of atoms?’

‘Certainly. Science tells us that.’

‘And you accept that the nucleus, in relation to the whole atom, is about the dimensions of a walnut in a football field? The rest is space. You agree?’

‘Yes, I suppose so. They do say that.’

‘But do you actually believe, sitting here at the table, that your fist and whole body, and the table, are almost entirely space?’

‘To that, I can reply unhesitatingly … Ye – e – s.’

This typical little exchange – often wholly internal – shows the Fallacy of Fluctuating Premises. The premise of naive realism (in this case identification with the body-image), is adopted in order to rule out yoga, but cannot be maintained as science, which in fact refutes it. As Russell said, in a remark admired by Einstein: ‘Naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.’

Yoga is based on direct empirical and then transcendental experience, which can be only roughly indicated in words and concepts derived from the present life of restriction and illusion.

Atoms on the point of a needle Artist’s impression of atoms on the point of a needle. They are ‘silhouetted’ as the dark round spots against a stream of ions in a vacuum. At the centre of each atom is the nucleus, the only thing that could be called matter. If the atom were the size of a football pitch, the nucleus would be walnut-sized. (Could the much-ridiculed Scholastic debate, on angels dancing on a needlepoint, have been a guess at the possibility of higher dimensions?)