In Defense of…the Real?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Lin Kristensen - Timeless Books

One might wonder why I, who prefers fantasy to reality, would write an article like this one. Well, I haven’t changed my fundamental position. I still prefer dreams over waking reality. But as long as I’m going to be in waking reality, I will continue to prefer, strictly within the context of waking reality proper, the real thing over its substitutes. This includes physical media as opposed to their electronic counterparts, which is the subject of this article.

I’ll start off with the issues of security that are inherent to the computer and the Internet. I’m not speaking of government conspiracies, but rather stability. Think of all the roles that your computer takes today. If you’re like me, you use your computer not only for research, communication, shopping, etc. on the Internet and creating and editing documents, but also for listening to music, watching movies and TV shows, and playing video games. That sleek, glowing box in front of you fulfills the functions that were, at various points in history, the exclusive or near-exclusive domain of other devices: CD players, television sets, typewriters, pen and paper. In other words, things have become centralized, meaning that most if not all of your eggs are in one of two baskets: your hard drive or the Internet itself. Never mind the occasional power outage or system failure: what will you do if computers and the Internet become things of the past, and nothing will be there to replace them? It is tempting to assume that technological progress will continue ad infinitum, but a long descent (to use John Michael Greer’s term) into a post-technoindustrial future doesn’t seem all that implausible, either. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

For the time being, it can be said that something resembling the transhumanist dream of immortality (via “mind uploading”) has already been realized for music and the printed word. Unlike paper books, CDs, and letters; e-books, MP3s, and e-mail do not fall apart because they do not possess physical vessels of their own. For all intents and purposes, they are eternal. The only question is whether the same thing can be said for the foundations upon which their existence depends.

The electronic medium has a lot going for it. I think few would deny that. It never gets dirty or worn, and, in theory, could last forever. Unlike its counterparts in bookshelves and cabinets, it takes up zero physical space and generally entails minimum hassle to retrieve, making it possible to fit an entire library’s worth of texts, music, etc. into a device that is no bigger than your average paperback. And let’s not forget all the natural resources that could be saved. And yet, under all that convenience, efficiency, and practicality, something is missing: tangibility.

Whether the idealists among us acknowledge it or not, it would seem that the material (notice that I’m using the word here in a loose sense) is every bit as valuable for us humans as the immaterial. How many people would, for example, be content with photographs, videos, audio recordings, or holograms of their loved ones rather than those people themselves in the flesh?

I feel that the same principle applies to inanimate objects. You can hold an e-book reader or an MP3 player in your hands, and even insert your own notes into the data, but the medium as a whole cannot respond or change to your touch. It’s almost like holding a miniature museum in your hands: you can see the book or the record and X-ray it and examine the contents, but you can’t actually feel the piece because it’s safely ensconced behind a wall of glass, forever beyond your reach.

But real books and real records? They’re capable of having a real history under your possession: fingerprints, notes, marks, and yes, wear and tear. Given enough time, a new–or, for that matter, used–book or record will have been shaped by your touch, bearing the unique marks of your ownership. These facts give collection a meaning apart from and beyond mere accumulation.

Those of us who, in the age of advanced modern technology, choose the physical over the electronic lose much, but in return gain (or retain) something that is arguably indispensable. In exchange for convenience, they get character. In exchange for practicality, they get personality. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

This is not to say that I disdain or despise the electronic medium. In the contrary, I think it provides an invaluable contrast–it can help us to appreciate and rediscover that which it was meant to replace.

Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta

By Jin-yeong Yi

In “Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind,” I mentioned Einstein and the ambiguity of his viewpoint on metaphysics. He has been called an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, a deist, a pantheist, and a panentheist. Given the persisting controversy, it could well be that his views were simply too nebulous to determine.

I have wondered about Einstein’s beliefs for a while now, though my research has not gotten any further than reading some quotations on the Internet. But I think my studies in general have finally yielded the beginnings of a possible and plausible answer to the mystery. It is this: that Einstein was an Advaitin.

I will use Einstein’s remarks on the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point for this brief, bullet-point style discussion:

“When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”[1]

Traditional Advaita denies that we have free will. Einstein took the same position, being a hardcore determinist. Citing Schopenhauer (who was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism), he repeatedly expressed the view that all events were directed by a rigorous chain of cause and effect.

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

*

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

*

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord….So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

The quintessence of Advaita is nonduality, the notion that everything is fundamentally and ultimately a single, unified whole, and that only ignorance and illusion, trapping us in delusions of egoism and individualism, prevents us from perceiving this.

“I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.”

The following quote fits in quite nicely with Karma Yoga:

“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”

Here he comes close to echoing Swami Vivekananda, who believed in serving humankind as one’s “larger Self.”

Perhaps the most suggestive pronouncement of all is the following:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Here, Einstein appears to be one with the Advaitin philosophers in that he implies that the existence of order in the universe suggests the existence of an intelligent, creative force (though not necessarily a personal one–Einstein made it quite clear that he did not believe in the traditional theistic concepts of deity), i.e., God/Brahman, and that he proclaims the unknowability of this entity/force.

Supposing that Einstein really was an Advaitin, was he himself aware of the fact? It seems unlikely that he was ignorant of Advaita, because he was arguably as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. But since he never actually used the label “Advaitin” or “Hindu” to describe his beliefs, it seems reasonable to infer that his thinking just happened to culminate in that Weltanschauung.

These are really only sketchy speculations, and are not intended to be taken too seriously. Hopefully a scholar who is equally familiar with Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta will give us his or her own opinion on the subject.

Notes

[1] http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm

Further Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer – Essay on the Freedom of the Will 

Dennis Waite – Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita