Some further musings on knowledge and the brain, on science and yoga

Even the tiniest particle of matter, however small, must have within itself all the knowledge of the universe. The reason that it must be like this, is that the particle must know the laws that govern it, and as all the laws of physics are supposed to hang together, this means it must know the laws that govern all the processes that are taking place in the universe. It must also know the characteristic properties of everything that exists in the universe as everything influences everything, however minutely. Without this all-sided omniscience the particle would not be able to act in the perfect harmony with the rest of the universe that is so typical of simple, material “things”. In other words, a perfect and complete knowledge must be an inalienable part of the very being of every little thing. (In case of interest: you can find a more elaborate argument for this idea and how it relates to other forms of knowledge here.)

Humans are more complicated than tiny material particles, and we do not only have this perfect and complete knowledge embedded in our deepest essence; we also have thoughts, feelings and sense-impressions. The reason we humans get so often into a terrible mess is that we allow our actions to be guided by these far less perfect surface thoughts, feelings and sense-impressions.

Thoughts etc. seem to come to us in three ways: we can construct them out of prior thoughts (retrieved from memory); we can re-construct them from complex symbolic sense-impressions that come to us from others (as in reading and listening); and finally, thoughts etc can come to us “telepathically” from others or universal nature. According to Sri Aurobindo more than half our thoughts come to us in this last fashion, from the outside.

Once we “have” a thought, we can assess its truth-worthiness in two ways: “horizontally” by comparing it with other thoughts, and “vertically” by checking it out against the implicit knowledge inherent in our being. This vertical process, though most of us are not terribly good at it, must in the end be the more important of the two, as the inner knowledge is primary and inherently true, while the outer, constructed knowledge, is indirect and at best an approximation.

According to Sri Aurobindo all knowledge comes ultimately from within and is at most triggered by the external mental processes of perception, thinking and learning. For many years he spent a large part of his genius, effort and time on fine-tuning and perfecting his own access to the inner knowledge, and he came to the conclusion that with sufficient effort, inner, subjective knowledge can be made more reliable than outer, objective knowledge.

Now, how does all this relate to what happens in our nervous system? Over the last 50 years science has discovered loads about the fysio-chemical functioning of our brains. It has also become quite good at imitating the functional aspects of our own thinking in “software” running on electronic “hardware”. Yet, as far as I know, it still has no cue on how our subjective awareness comes into being or how consciousness relates to the working of the brain. We know how to change the content of our awareness, and how to chemically disturb it, but we have no idea how it arises or how it could possibly influence material processes.

The Isha Upanishad says that avidya (the type of knowledge science collects) is needed to conquer death, and that vidya (the yogic knowledge of the Self) is needed to find immortality. Did the Isha predict thousands of years ahead of time that one day humanity’s secular and spiritual efforts would come together, or did it mean something entirely different?

It is not immediately obvious why yoga would need science. It is easier to see why science needs yoga, but still, a meeting point is conceivable. If scientists move ahead into the study of subtler and subtler processes at work in the cells of our body, and if yogis develop greater and greater powers of consciousness, a time might come when these two efforts will meet and we will learn to move all kind of subtle material processes directly with our consciousness.

But is that synthesis really the intended direction?

Science without yoga is sure to destroy us. A viable future with yoga but without science is easier to conceive. Humanity might leave material science and technology simply behind as a toy it has outgrown, once it has recovered the full power of consciousness. But what if they are meant to fulfill and complete each other? What form would that take?

In what direction should we prepare ourselves?

There are many reasons why the development of yoga seems to me to be the most urgent, by far.

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