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Duality and non-duality in science and religion

By Mark MacDowell and Paul Utukuru, Science & Theology News, May 26, 2005

A major problem in modern cosmology is related to the issue of duality and non-duality.

Sylvania, Ohio (USA) -- A bad workman blames his tools, but what if the tools are just not sharp enough for the job? A major problem in modern cosmology is related to the issue of duality and non-duality, which is directly related to the only tool available to us: mathematics. With math, we try to trace back the origins of our universe to the point when space and time did not exist.

<< Can cosmology provide insight into science and religion? (Photo: Morguefile)

All goes well until we get to just a moment after the big bang. Beyond that, our mathematics breaks down and refuses to go back any further to the exact moment of the event, usually referred to as the space-time singularity.

This breakdown occurs for two reasons. One is that our cosmological mathematics is either time-dependent, meaning that there is no change in space without some reference to a change in time, or space-dependent, meaning that there is no time without some reference to a change in space. That being the case, how can we ever describe mathematically the space-time singularity that doesn?t exist in space-time?

This problem boils down to our inability to establish a connected relationship between the singularity at the moment of the big bang and the multiplicity after the big bang. What seems to be necessary is a mathematical formalism which is space-time independent. Obviously, no such thing exists.

The other reason for our inability to reach the space-time singularity with our mathematics is our inability to derive duality or multiplicity from none or the One. In other words, how did the two and the many come from the One or none if there was only one or none to begin with?

In this context, the major religions prevailing in the world today can be divided into two broad categories, theistic and non-theistic. The theistic ones can be further divided into a monotheistic group and a polytheistic group. Among the strictly monotheistic ones are all three Abrahamic religions and Sikhism.  The polytheistic group includes such religions as Shinto, the Native American Toltec tradition and the new neo-paganism emerging in some parts of Europe. The non-theistic group includes Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and the like. Hinduism is both polytheistic and monotheistic, even though most Hindus are quick to argue that their numerous deities are but different manifestations of the One God. Furthermore, Hinduism is also nontheistic in the sense that the metaphysics of Hindu Vedanta is almost identical to that of Buddhism.

Contrary to popular belief, there is indeed a common metaphysical thread that runs through all the religions listed above. And that is the notion of oneness of name and form that permeates our world. It is described as the ?Great One? in the Dead Sea Scrolls and as God the Father in Christianity. It is referred to as Sunyata in Buddhism and as Brahman in Hindu Vedanta. Although this concept of oneness occurs in so many different locations in the holy books and verbal transmissions of all the religions of the world, the way it is addressed in Buddhism and Vedanta can be subjectively realized and experimentally validated.

These traditions recognize that all our perceptions and our conceptions, including our languages and our mathematical tools, involve duality and multiplicity. Buddhism at its most austere is expressed in its ?Middle Path.? Using the dialectic as a cathartic device, it takes a strong logical position that all language is dualistic because in order to define a term one must define its ?anti-term? ? its opposite. One cannot speak of any concept without at the same time giving equal credence to the existence of its opposite. For example, there would be no ?left? without ?right,? no ?up? without ?down,? no ?athlete? without ?couch potato,? no ?blue? without ?non-blue.? Even a concept as simple as ?tree? is dependent on ?non-tree ? for its definition.

What does this mean? In general, it means one cannot create a term in a vacuum. With nothing against which it can be contrasted, a term is meaningless. Therefore, to describe ?The Great One? using language that is dualistic or multiplistic is meaningless.

To experience the Great One, the recognized pathway among the theistic religions is prayer and revelation. But if trying to describe what is essentially ineffable is a misdirected effort, what might work is something that enables you to transcend you own mind and take it out of space-time. This is where yogic practices such as meditation, repetitive chanting and reflective Zen come into the picture.

Thus, all the seemingly independent concepts in our vocabulary are actually a giant compendium with intersecting origins. This ?dependent origination? also applies to the real world we live in. For example, we would not exist if it weren?t for the plants that just happen to exhale exactly the same mixture of gases that we couldn?t exist without. Likewise, we exhale exactly the same mixture that they need.

What about our planet? Isn?t it an independent entity? Hardly! Our own planet came from somewhere and is sustained by something. Without the sun, we would freeze quicker than you could read about it. Comets of a non-earthly origin are thought to have brought water to earth and actually seeded the potential for life here. Our own sun is dependent on its own ?birth galaxy? and our galaxy is dependent upon its own ?birth cluster,? and so it goes. Therefore, nothing in our universe has any real independent existence.

The Buddhist sees our whole world as full of hints or arrows pointing to non-duality, and it is interesting that modern science is also slowly picking up on non-duality. Quantum teleportation as well as the Bose-Einstein condensate are two shining examples. In both cases, what appear to be separate particles or entities act as a unit not separated in time. The Buddhist would take these facts as an intellectual starting point, the furthest outpost of rationality, from which to make the leap from the four dimensions of here and now, to that which lies beyond the four dimension of space-time: the non-dual. Sufism and other mystical disciplines involve the same sort of techniques.

Religion can encourage the student to contemplate dependent origination exhibited by nature as well as dependent origination in language as a springboard to a ?higher truth? of intuitional insight. This insight, called prajnaparamita in Buddhism, goes beyond where language and conceptualization function into a non-dual higher reality: that ?Great One? from which we all come and to which we all shall return.

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Mark MacDowell is a professor of philosophy at Lourdes College in Sylvania, Ohio. Paul Utukuru is a retired medical physicist.



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