I recently finished abstracting the paperback book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene, a surprisingly young and boyish-looking professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He is sometimes seen on various TV science programs explaining modern physics in layman’s terms, and his book does the same. Not to everyone’s taste, I admit, but a great book and just what I love to read.
Much of Greene’s discussion is about time, that elusive dimension that only moves forward at a speed that makes no sense to even ask. He leads us in reasoning that the flow of time is only an illusion, an artifact of our thinking. The entire space-time continuum just is. All of those high school moments you remember still exist and always will.
I’ll just quote his conclusions—you can follow the reasoning in his book: “If you were having a great time at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, you still are, since that is just one immutable location in space-time. It’s tough to accept this description, since our world view so forcefully distinguishes between past, present, and future. But if we stare intently at this familiar temporal scheme and confront it with the cold hard facts of modern physics, its only place of refuge seems to lie within the human mind.”
The Hindu god Shiva looks down at me from the wall next to my desk. He is on a mounted poster advertising the exhibition “Manifestations of Shiva” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1981. His manifestation here is as Nataraja, the “Dancing Shiva,” a well-known artistic masterpiece that is a metaphor of life. Shiva with his four arms stands on one leg, the other raised in dance, his hair flying from the bun behind his head. His outstretched right hand holds a small, toy drum, the kind with two opposing heads and a bead on a string that bounces from one to the other as the drum is rocked side-to-side. The outstretched hand on his left holds a flame.
The usual explanation is that the drum represents the creation of life, one life with each tick of the drum, and the flame represents the destruction of death, the other bookend of life.
But the symbolism goes even deeper. The clue is that he is standing on the subdued demon of ignorance. Shiva, therefore, is representing enlightenment. Hindu belief is that the world we know through our senses is only a shadow of a hidden, timeless Unity, a unity that our limited brain cannot comprehend but must deconstruct into separate objects and actions moving through time. Although the Unity cannot be perceived, it can be experienced. Shiva’s drum represents the ticking of time that begins our deception, and the flame is the fire of enlightenment that burns away our veil of ego hiding the underlying Unity. For all of us, Hindu or not, the veil is momentarily removed when we briefly forget our isolating individuality, such as when we see a sunset, a delighted child, or get caught up in music. Time stands still and we are filled with the sense of our unity with the universe. The experience is one of joy, of enlightenment—enlightenment to our relationship with the whole. In fact, this is exactly what joy is. The trick is to maintain it beyond the moment.
If this sounds bizarre, the same philosophy is described by Plato in his famous allegory of shadows on the cave wall. It is also part of our Judeo-Christian heritage expressed in different words, such as, “feeling the presence of God,” or “becoming one with God.” Every aspect of a church service is designed to open our minds to the Unity—to God.
Both physics and religion are attempts to understand the structure of the universe and our part in it. They are not that different.