The meaning of life and the nature of reality:.  An exercise in erecting and demolishing bogus strawmen?
Posted on November 28th, 2015

By Bodhi Dhanapala, Quebec, Canada  

An article in the Lankaweb (ජීවිතයේ-අරුත-සොයා-අඳුර/) on 22nd November by Mr. Dharmasiri Seneviratne, written in Sinhalese under the title Searching in the dark for the meaning of life” ( ජීවිතයේ   අරුත  සොයා අඳුරේ අතපතගෑම ) prompted me to write this article, as I have been following the acrimonious debate between Dr. Nalin de Silva, and Prof. Amaratunga on similar topics, published in the weekly columns of the Vidusara magazine.

Prof. Amaratunga is a retired professor of dentistry, while Dr. Nalin de Silva is a retired professor of mathematics and an active polemicist. That is, they are (or have been) experts in different branches of science. Since science is a vast subject, no one can be an expert in all of it. As a science teacher in a technical college and a person who has tried science popularization among the public here, I am aware of the problem of error, and the need to check one’s views, writings, do google searches etc., before going public. As such, I have discusses these contents with several physics academics in Quebec.

It was amusing to read in the last issue of the Vidusara, a condemnation of Dr. Amaratunga’s article by Dr Silva, because the former  had  given a wrong phonetic rendering of the name of Schrodinger, a founding father  of the quantum theory. Not so long ago Dr. Silva  himself gave a wrong pronunciation to the name de Broglie, one of the key founders of the quantum theory, and held onto it even after the error was brought to his notice several times. We remember Dr. Silva’s steadfast attempts to claim that the Schrodinger equation came after the 1927 Solvay conference and that de Broglie revealed his theory there etc., contrary to well-known history.


While Prof. Amaratunga is interested in popularizing science”,  Dr. Nalin de Silva’s campaign lasting several decades is to claim that science is an utterly putrid lie” (පට්ට පල් බොරුවක් ). This position is politically expedient as he can champion popular but unscientific beliefs and garner public support. I patiently  examined some of Dr. Nalin de Silva’s writings during the past months (from March to August,2015) and published my critiques of them in the Lankaweb. Here I am indebted to the open-mindedness of the Lankaweb editor in publishing my unpopular ideas. In my humble view,  it seems that Dr. Silva’s technique is to mis-represent science (or state it within his ‘chinthanaya’), and there by build straw men that he proceeds to demolish with great gallantry.  Here we cannot  discuss all the strawmen raised by Dr Silva, but we look at  the latest  strawmen.  The issues raised by Mr. Dharmasiri Seneviratne’s will also be met by this discussion.

Meaning of life, distinct from purpose of life.
In my view, both Dr. Silva and Mr. Seneviratne, and perhaps Prof. Amaratunga too,  have  not attempted to distinguish  two distinct issues, namely, meaning” and  purpose” of  life”. Some of them have assumed that life” merely applies to humans. The human species is a negligible component of the bio-sphere.  Just the weight of insects (leave aside other life forms) exceeds the weight of all humans  ).

So what is the meaning of life” in the general context of all phenomena? Why is there life in the first place? Why so many variations? If there are 7 billion humans, there are trillions and trillions of insects, bugs, and millions of microbes inside each human and each animal and everywhere else? So, to ask what is the meaning of life” in this context is like trying to make some sense of it all”.

On the other hand, the purpose” of life is something relevant only to a sentient, intelligent being. What should be the purpose of my life? What ought I do with my life? This is NOT an IS” question of the sort answered by science. Science  will tell you that the earth IS round, the grass IS green, the hydrogen atom IS smaller than a  nanometer, and so on. Those are IS statements. The answer to the question of the meaning” of life may also be an IS statement. However, all questions about purpose” are statements about what one SHOULD do. If you are a Buddhist, you SHOULD strive to end the cycle of suffering in samsara. Hindus or Christians have own  purpose” of life. Mr. Seneviratne should exercise compassion on others who hold views that differ from his.

Thus the criticisms levelled against Dr. Amaratunga by Dr. de Silva, and by Mr. Dharmasiri Seneviratne, are based on their confusion, or misrepresentation of  two distinct entities, viz., meaning” and purpose” as being one and the  same thing. They are distinct  logical categories, as stated by Buddhist philosophers of the 5th century like Asanga, or western philosophers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Is there an external, objective reality?

Dr. Silva’s article  in the 25th November  Vidusara issue reveals many other straw men that Dr. Silva erects, in the hope of demolishing them. He also  exploits some minor technical errors  in Dr. Amaratunga’s article.   According to Dr. Silva, when a rubber plant sheds leaves in February, it only happens inside his mind and not for real”. If I understand him correctly, then the rubber plantation workers are all in his mind and there is no external mind-independent group of workers or rubber trees. This kind of thing is rejected as manasgaatha”  (මනස්ගාත, mental aberrations ) by the hard-headed Sinhala villager.

I have explained in some detail (see Vidusara, 25-11-2015) that science is based on converting all observations to  pointer readings, and deducing from these pointer readings, an external reality which is person independent. This is why mathematics is fundamental to science, as the deduction process is often non-trivial. For instance, a cup may be seen as having a mouth which is an ellipse from some view points, or a circle from some other view points. Its shape and size will also differ from different perspectives. However, we can take measurements using a 3-D scanner (or hire a surveyor) and use these measurements to deduce, using mathematics, a shape of an external object that we call the cup” which is invariant under all displacements of the surveyor. It  fits in with ALL the observations from ALL different perspectives. Furthermore, we can use surveyors of various skin colours, cultures, or political affiliations, and they would ALL come to the same conclusion about the cup, its dimensions, location and its existence in a person-independent, culture independent manner. We can say the same thing about all observations in science and constructions there of.  Thus astronomers in various cultures, in different parts of the world, concluded that the earth is a spheroid, as soon as each civilization acquired sufficiently accurate tools and mathematics, or by the diffusion of knowledge.

Mr. Ranjith Soyza, an esteemed indefatigable worker in the cause against terrorism also seems to believe that scientific truth” is culture dependent, although he would not give any specific examples when requested to be specific. This observer-independent quality of science is questioned by Dr. Silva by setting up his own straw man, where he begins by asserting  that … ඔහු කියන්නේ ලෝකයේ කවදත් කොතැනත් තිබුණේ එක ම විද්‍යාව බව ය”(he says that the same science existed in the world, whenever and where ever it be), which is clearly not what  Prof. Amaratunga had attempted to say.

As Dr. Silva says අමරතුංග මහතා ගේ ලිපිවල අපමණ වැරදි ඇති මුත් ඒ සියල්ල ගෙනහැර දැක්‌වීමට ඉඩක්‌ නැත …” although there are innumerable errors in Amaratunga’s articles, there is no room to display all of them).

What does the Quantum theory say?

There are innumerable errors in Dr. Silva’s  articles too, and in trying to correct” Dr. Amaratunga, he unleashes a plethora of errors. We cannot deal with them all. However, what seems to be fundamental errors in Dr. Silva’s notions of the quantum theory need to be stated.

Dr. Silva writes as follows (I give the original Sinhala version followed by an English rendering):
<begin quote>
H යනු හැමිල්ටෝනියානු කාරකය තරංග (අයිගන්) ශ්‍රීතය මත යෙදූ විට ලැබෙන අයිගන් අග Eවලින් දැක්‌වෙයි. අපට අවශ්‍ය වන්නේ H කාරකය තරංග ශ්‍රීතය මත යෙදූ විට ලැබෙන අගය පිළිබඳව විමසීමට ය. මේ අගය සාධාරණ ව ගත් කල විවික්‌ත (discrete) වෙයි. යම් පද්ධතියක්‌ සම්බන්ධයෙන් සමීකරණය ආකාරයෙන් ගෙන H කාරකයක්‌ ලෙස ගත හොත් Eට ගත හැක්‌කේ එක්‌ අගයක්‌ පමණක්‌ නො වේ. Eට අගයන් කිහිපයක්‌ ගත හැකි අතර ඒ ඒ අගය ලැබීමට ඇති සම්භාවිතාව කුමක්‌ දැයි ෂ්රොඩිංගර් සමීකරණය ආශ්‍රයෙන් ම දැනගත හැකි ය.
H is the Hamiltonian operator which acting on the eigenfunctions gives the eigenvalues E. We wish to examine the values obtained when the H operator acts on the wavefunction. In general this is discrete. Given a system, taking H as an operator, E does not get any single value. E can take several values, and which one applies can be deduced from the Schrodinger equation itself”.
<end quote>

What Dr. Silva forgets is that every properly constructed Hamiltonian operator  in physics has an eigenvalue spectrum bounded from below. This defines a unique minimum energy which is the energy  Dr. Amaratunga  considers. This is called the ground state energy” of the system.

Dr. Silva’s statement that E can take several values, and which one applies can be deduced from the Schrodinger equation itself.” is also incorrect, or at least very misleading. Which eigenvalue is applicable CANNOT be deduced from the Schrodinger equation,  but it is a consequence of the boundary conditions imposed by the experimental set up.

Then Dr. Silva says:
<begin quote>
අමරතුංග මහතා … අනුව “ෂ්රොඩින්ජර් සමීකරණය විසින් පූර්වකථනය කෙරෙන්නේ යම් පද්ධතියක ගුණ මැන්න විට ලැබෙන ප්‍රතිඵල ක්‌වොන්ටීකරණයට (Quantized) භාජන විය හැකි බව ය. මින් හැෙගන්නේ එම ප්‍රතිඵල නියත වූ වෙන් ව පවත්නා අගයන් (Specific Discrete Values) විය හැකි බවයි” අමරතුංග මහතාට එක ම ලිපියෙහි වුව ද පරස්‌පරවලින් තොර ව යමක්‌ ප්‍රකාශ කළ නො හැකි ය. ක්‌වොන්ටම් යාන්ත්‍රිකය සම්භාව්‍ය යාන්ත්‍රිකයට සමාන වන බව කියන ඒ මහතා කුමක්‌ කීව ද ක්‌වොන්ටම් යාන්ත්‍රිකය සම්භාව්‍ය යාන්ත්‍රිකයෙන් වෙනස්‌ වෙයි. ක්‌වොන්ටම් යාන්ත්‍රිකයෙහි මැනගත හැකි අගය ක්‌වොන්ටීකරණයට ලක්‌ වෙයි. එහෙත් සම්භාව්‍ය යාන්ත්‍රිකයෙහි එසේ නො වේ.
According to Dr. Amaratunga, ‘Schrodinger’s  equation predicts that if the properties of a system are measured, the resulting properties can be subject to quantization. This means that those results would take specific discrete values”. It is clear that Dr. Amaratunga cannot make statements which are free of contradictions even in the same article. Whatever  Dr. Amaratunga may say  does not matter as he says that classical mechanics is the same as quantum mechanics; in fact they are different. What is measurable in quantum mechanics is subject to quantization, while this is not so in classical mechanics.”
<end quote>

Ii seems that Dr. Silva (incorrectly) thinks that quantization is a property of the Schrodinger equation. This is vehemently not the case. Whether quantization occurs or not is a property of the boundary conditions imposed  by the experimental set up. Take the simplest case dealt by Newton’s first law, i.e., the free motion of a particle of mass m  in free space. It is trivial to solve the Schrodinger differential equation and conclude that the wave functions are plane waves, with the wavevector k, such that the energy  E is equal to hbar multiplied by k (squared) and  divided by 2m. Thus the energy is continuous, and not discrete, exactly as for a classical particle. That  is,  there is NO quantization even though  we are dealing with the Schrodinger equation. The Schrodinger equation and Newton’s equation give the same answers. But if the particle is confined in some direction, the motion in that direction becomes quantized due to the imposed boundary condition. So that could account for Dr. Amaratunga’s first paragraph and his second paragraph, while Dr. Silva prefers to mount a straw man and attempt to demolish it.

Is there a gravitational attraction or not?

Dr. Silva in his Vidusara article dated 18-11-2015 says that 
<begin quote>
“ඇල්බට්‌ අයින්ස්‌ටයින් විද්වතා ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණයක්‌ නොමැති බව පවසා මේ අවුරුද්දට වසර සියයක්‌ ගෙවී ගොස්‌ ඇති නමුත් බටහිර වෙසෙන බොහෝ බටහිර විද්‍යාඥයන්ට මෙන්ම මෙරට වාසය කරන බටහිර විද්‍යාව ගැන දත් බොහෝ දෙනාට ද ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය ඊනියා යථාර්ථයක්‌ බවට පත් වී ඇත. නිව්ටන් ගේ ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය සහ තවත් දේ අයින්ස්‌ටයින්ට අනුව අවකාශ කාලය වෙයි. අවකාශ කාලයේ වස්‌තු බල (ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය ද ඇතුළු) රහිත ව චලනය වීම (නිදැල්ලේ චලනය වීම) අවකාශ කාලයක්‌ නොමැති, අවකාශය හා කාලය වෙන වෙන ම පැවති නිව්ටන්ට පෙනී ගියේ ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය ලෙස ය. ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය යනු නිව්ටන් ගෙතූ පට්‌ටපල් බොරුවකි. එහෙත් එම ප්‍රවාදයේ, එනම් පට්‌ටපල් බොරුවේ සාර්ථකත්වය නිසා ම දහ නව වැනි සියවස අග භාගය වන විට ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය යථාර්ථයක්‌ බවට පත් වී තිබිණි. එහෙත් පුදුමය එය නො වේ. අයින්ස්‌ටයින් ගේ සාධාරණ සාපේක්‌ෂතා ප්‍රවාදයෙන් අවුරුදු සියයකට පසුව ද ගුරුත්වාකර්ෂණය ඊනියා යථාර්ථයක්‌ ලෙස පැවතීම ය.
Although a hundred years have passed since Albert Einstein stated that there is no gravitational attraction”, gravity has become part of the so-called reality” accepted by  many western scientists as well as those living here who know western science. Newton’s gravitational attraction and other effects  are simply effects of spacetime according to Einstein. Objects in spacetime display free motion, without being subject to any forces (including gravity). But this appeared to Newton as being motion under gravity because he considered space and time as separate entities. Gravitational attraction is an utterly putrid lie concocted by Newton. But, due to the very success of this utterly putrid lie, by the end of the 19th century, gravitational attraction had become an accepted  reality. But that is not the surprise. What is surprising is that, even after 100 years of general relativity, gravitational attraction is considered  the so-called reality.
<end quote>
Here again Dr. Silva is building up straw men and demolishing them with great gusto. Newton defined a force to accompany any observed acceleration, or change of free motion. Given the energy scales, speeds and timescales used by humans, space and time ARE distinct entities. Most humans intuitively understand the “world” as evolving in “time”, with a clear past”, a  now”, and a distinct future”. They have been told that their Karma of the past will act on their future lives.  Karma is not claimed to be Lorentz invariant. If people regard anything as a patta-pal boruwa (utterly putrid lie), then that would be Einstein’s view that time and space have no independent existence, but form a four-dimensional object.

However, this four-dimensional manifold”, or 4-component field” has three space-like  components and one time-like component. The experiments that were completed by 1915 definitely required special relativity, and not general relativity. General relativity arose from Einstein’s attempts to write Newton’s gravitational law in a way analogous to Maxwell’s laws which satisfied Lorentz symmetry.  Einstein succeeded in banishing the gravitational field by constructing  a curved space-time field whose local curvature dictated the motion of bodies in it. While Newton made the orbits of bodies to be curved by introducing suitable force similar to what we experience on earth everyday,  Einstein curved the space where the bodies move, and obtained those same results of Newton as well as some new results. (In Sinhalese we say නටන්න බැරිනම්, පොලොව ඇදයි. Einstein stopped Newton’s dance by twisting the floor!).
Why is Dr. Silva so sure that Newton’s views are putrid lies”, while those of Einstein are not? After having championed Einstein, now Dr. Silva will say, even Einstein’s views  are putrid  lies”! If everything is a putrid lie, why does he bother to split hairs instead of trying to escape Samsara?

Einstein was trying to make the gravitational field  look like electromagnetism which is inherently Lorentz invariant. The modern view in quantum electrodynamics is that the attraction between two opposite charges, or the repulsion between two negative charges, is mediated by the exchange of a type of zero-mass particles known as photons. These are boson-like excitations of a gauge field, with an intrinsic spin of one. One can construct a theory of gravity along those lines, when we find that the gravitational field is a gauge field, where the bodies attract by the exchange of gravitons which are zero-mass bosons with two units of momentum. So gravitational attraction is very much alive and well. What is unsatisfying is that both Einstein’s version of gravity, and the gauge-theory of gravity cannot as yet be derived from one single set of assumptions that would form a grand unified theory. However, the gauge theory is more likely to be the winner, rather than the purely geometrical approach of Einstein which seems  a dead end, similar to the geometrical models of motion initiated by the Greeks. Furthermore,  Einstein’s theory predicts nonsense in the  quantum realm,  with impossible infinities popping up throughout the calculations.

No one said that science is a complete theory.  It is a highly successful, still evolving method of assimilating what we know in a manner which is not person-centered, nor culture-centered.

One Response to “The meaning of life and the nature of reality:.  An exercise in erecting and demolishing bogus strawmen?”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    It is evident from the writings above that the writer has minimal knowledge of what he is trying to talk about. He thinks he can take educated guesses by consulting academics and be knowledgeable by “googling”. He has cut and pasted an incoherent bag of scientific concepts to show that it is science.

    At the end of the 19th Century even the famous mathematician Laplace thought that everything in the Universe or in our experience could be explained with Newtonian Mechanics. Yet it did not take that many years to prove he was wrong and that Newtonian Mechanics was at variance with observed reality. These theories including Einstein’s became just stories or other explanations and in Dr Nalin de Silva’s more dramatic words – Patta Pal Boru! This is not to say that these “stories” are entirely useless for they make our day to day living more manageable and less cumbersome.

    It is one thing to popularise science for it gives explanations or “stories” to conventional experiences and yet another thing
    to say it is the final explanation of reality.

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