Round Earth in a Flat Cosmology
In an earlier post (which now seems ages ago), I had described the meaning of “flat earth”. The simple idea was that the flatness was an artifact of the model rather than our observation. This point has oft been repeated in my book Mystic Universe as well. I will use this post to further elaborate what is “round earth”, which is again not based on observation, although it leads to the observation.
Table of Contents
The Nature of Models
Let’s consider the periodic table of chemical elements to illustrate what I mean by models. In this model, Hydrogen is at the top left corner, and Helium at the top right corner. Lithium, Beryllium, Nitrogen, Carbon, Oxygen, etc. are then placed below these elements in the model. Does that mean that whenever we observe, Hydrogen will be above, and Carbon will be below? Obviously, no. These are artifacts of the model, not the properties of our observations. The model is important because it tells us about the similarities and differences, about how variety is constructed from the simplicity. The variety is all the chemical elements, and the simplicity is that there are just electrons, protons, etc.
We can further look at the subatomic particles in an atom and we find a similar kind of model. There are ‘three generations’ of fermions and bosons, with symmetries of charges. These are grouped together into a model with positive and negative charges placed one on top of the other. The placement of charges doesn’t reflect what we will see in the real world. But it helps us understand the interrelations between the particles, and how their symmetries are indicated by a theory of particle physics.
We utilize many such models. For example, an organizational chart reflects the hierarchy of people. That hierarchy doesn’t indicate that people are physically higher or lower. Society is divided into classes, with the higher-class placed above the lower-class. That doesn’t mean that they are physically higher or lower. Governments have a hierarchical structure with the head of the state having many ministers, which then manage many top-level bureaucrats, who then manage lower-level officers. But they are not physically higher or lower.
These are called ‘conceptual models’ or sometimes ‘mental models’. They indicate conceptual, theoretical, social, financial, administrative or other kinds of relationships that we do not observe.
However, in drawing the cosmological model, modern science departs from this approach, but Vedic cosmology sticks to it. In modern cosmology, the universe is drawn based on a three-dimensional space with X, Y, and Z axes representing the physical dimensions. In Vedic cosmology, upper and lower, left and right, are just like the elements in the periodic table. When people study this model, they get an urge to reconcile the cosmological model to what is observed, when the right approach would be to treat it as a ‘mental model’ of the cosmos.
Two- and Three-Dimensional Models
In Vedic cosmology, the planet ‘earth’ is just like one of the elements in the periodic table, and because it is part of a two dimensional ‘row’, it gives rise to the ‘flat earth’ notion of the planet. Now this seems to hark back to the ‘flat earth’ ideas of the past, in which the earth was literally flat. And thus begin the attempts at trying to reconcile ‘flat’ and ‘spherical’ models of the earth. Some say that the earth is literally flat, and the ‘round’ earth is merely a conspiracy. Some say that there is a round earth placed on top of a flat plane. Some take the stereographic projections of earth into maps, and overlay them on to the ‘flat earth’ model. And there are possibly many other ways.
In all these attempts at ‘reconciling’ the flat and spherical models, some key facts are missing. First, whether the earth is physically flat or round, we must be able to see the other things just next to each other, pretty much like they are in the model—if it is a physical model. But no such thing can be seen. This presents a straightforward contradiction with observation, and ensures that these models will never cross the scientific threshold of empirical confirmation. Second, there is no rational justification for why the cosmic model should be just this, and not anything else. Without the underlying principles of necessity and sufficiency, simplicity and parsimony, there are no ‘sufficient reasons’ offered to justify the model. Third, the model must have numerous structures which are called ‘mountains’, ‘rivers’, ‘trees’, and ‘oceans’, which are so large that they cannot obviously be understood. The physical models make absolutely no attempts to explain what they are, how they can be so big, why we don’t see them, or why they should exist in the first place. It is all just there, to just be accepted on faith.
All these problems arise due to a simple reason, namely, that we are unable to distinguish between mental models and physical structures. Part of the problem is that we are trying to reconcile cosmology with astronomy. The former is a mental model, and the latter a sensual model. When these two things are conflated, then everything must be reduced to sense perception, and numerous problems arise.
Physical Reality is an Illusion
At the heart of all these problems lies in an innate faith in the perception of the senses. The world must be just like we see it. But the world is not like we see it. The world is essentially ideas. Color, taste, smell, sound, touch, etc. are all ideas. Yellow, red, green; sweet, sour, bitter; square, rectangle, triangle; these are all ideas. These ideas are not just sensations; they are prominently used in language as metaphors.
Due to these metaphors, we can say that someone is ‘hot’ or ‘cold’. Someone is ‘acute’ while someone else is ‘obtuse’. Someone is feeling ‘bitter’, while someone else is a ‘sweet’ person. Someone is ‘sharp’, and someone is ‘blunt’. Someone is ‘hard’ and someone is ‘soft’. Every sensation that you can think of, has a mental counterpart, and the words are frequently used in language. How do we understand them? We understand them because they are concepts. They are not merely physical entities. They are actually conceptual entities. However, we also have the five senses just as we have the mind. When a reality is perceived by the mind, then the same concepts become ideas; when seen by through the five senses, they are sensations. Thus, the difference between sensation and conception is due to our process of sensation.
When we understand that reality is conceptual, then ‘distance’ is conceptual. There are similarities between shades of red, so they are ‘close’. There are dissimilarities between shades of red and blue, so they are ‘far’. All concepts have such similarities and dissimilarities with other concepts. Which puts them near and far. These are the real distances, from which an illusory distance is produced.
The production of the illusory distance involves an interaction with two properties, which I call ‘strength’ and ‘power’. For a detailed discussion, I would refer the reader to the book Time and Consciousness, which explains how relativistic length contraction and time dilation arise due to the changing ‘strength’ and ‘power’ of the interactions. We can think of two properties of vision—which are called contrast and brightness. If we interact strongly, then the contrast increases, the brightness decreases, and we get the illusion of proximity. If we interact weakly, then the contrast decreases, the brightness increases, and we get the illusion of distance. Factually, nothing is moving, but we get the illusions of nearness and farness.
Thus, all physical distances to other planets and galaxies, even distance between people, or things, are byproducts of changing interactions. For example, as you walk down the road, you see different shops coming close and going far. Everybody thinks that their body is moving, but the body is fixed. However, the body interacts strongly with one shop, and you think you are close to that shop. The body interacts weakly with another shop, and you think you are far.
What is Two-Dimensional Space?
The two-dimensional planes described in Vedic cosmology are just like a period of elements in the periodic table. The level of these elements, or what we can call their ‘period’ denotes a conceptual similarity between them. The difference is simply that these are two dimensional periods instead of one-dimensional. That two-dimensionality arises because we have two kinds of senses—of knowledge and action. We describe everything in terms of (1) how it appears to us, and (2) how we use it.
The cosmos is also described in the same way. A kitchen knife is ideally meant to be used to cut vegetables. But it can also be used to pierce a hole, tighten a screw, or cut a piece of paper. If we fix the shape of the knife, then there is a range of possibilities about how we can use that thing. Likewise, if we fix the usage, then there are a range of possibilities about these things can seem in our appearance.
This is a property of all quantum objects. If we fix their position, then their momentum is uncertain. If we fix their momentum, then their position is uncertain. Hence, it is also called the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory. To understand this property, we must think in terms of knowledge and action; these are two complementary properties of everything, but the space in which we describe these properties is two dimensional, such that you cannot truly separate these two dimensions, because as you narrow the ‘width’ in one dimension, then the ‘width widens in the other dimension. Owing to this fact, the ‘flat plane’ of cosmology can be understood as an inextricable space of two-dimensions, but these dimensions are not physical; they are two complementary ways of describing the same thing.
This mathematical property of the space is described in atomic theory by relating the two dimensions by a Fourier Transform. There is factually only one reality, but it has two representations which require two dimensions. Each dimension is inadequate to describe the full reality, so two dimensions are required. But these two dimensions are not separate realities, so the two-dimensional plane is not like two separate physical directions. As we narrow the “width” in one dimension, the “width” in another dimension increases.
What is Three-Dimensional Space?
The three-dimensional space is a further division of each of the two dimensions, and constitutes different concepts or types. For example, when operating through the sense of seeing, the visual sensation is divided into three properties (these are called tanmātra)—shape, size, and color. The color is then divided into three properties—e.g. cyan, magenta, and yellow. Similarly, the auditory sense perceives tone, pitch, and form. Thus, there are many such properties with their subdivisions, which constitutes a complex tree-like structure—if we try to put them down in a picture, we will have to use hundreds of dimensions to describe all these properties. This picture will be a ‘mental model’.
Our mind, however, combines these separate three-dimensional pictures into a single three-dimensional picture. For example, if you are perceiving an apple, then you will say that the same apple has taste, shape, color, smell, etc. According to Sāñkhya philosophy, this is not true. There are atoms of taste, smell, color, shape, etc. The apple is comprised of these atoms, but each property is a separate atom. However, our minds combine these atoms into a single physical object such that we say that the same thing has the color, taste, smell, shape, etc.
In Sāñkhya, each of these properties is comprised of the three modes of nature, which are qualities. And each sense and sense-object is comprised of the three modes. So, the mind enters the sense of sound, and it sees three qualities, and forms a three-dimensional representation of the sound. Then it descends into the sense of sight, and forms a three-dimensional representation of the sight. In this way, many three-dimensional representations are created. And then, all these representations are overlaid into a single three-dimensional picture. As a result, we see a three-dimensional world, which is in turn many such dimensions of taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound.
What is Round Earth?
Now, we can talk about the nature of the ‘round’ earth. To do this, we need to add two more properties to three dimensions— (1) symmetry, and (2) closure. These two are also purely mathematical properties of sets and spaces, but they create a spherical space.
It is worth noting that all through this process, we are not talking about some material ‘ball’ called Earth. We are only talking about the geometry of space. Matter is nothing but the geometry of space. This idea is well-known in modern science, although only one property—mass—is converted into geometry (thus far). So, what we mean by Earth (in Vedic cosmology) is a region of space. This region is three dimensional. But that is itself not enough, because a three-dimensional region of space can also be a cube or a cylinder. Whether it is a cube, or cylinder, or sphere, it will have the property of closure. This means that these shapes are ‘spaces’. Earth is a separate space than the Moon. These are parts of a larger space, just like a city is a part of state, a state is a part of a country, and so on. The city limits are well-defined, and at each boundary there is an enforcement. Closure means that there is an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the boundary of that space.
Closure in space can be easily understood if we think of whole and part. The part has a boundary, and it is within the whole. The tree-like geometry is not a physical tree; it is a whole-part relationship. Just like a city is a part of the country, similarly, closure is attained by creating boundaries in space. When the whole and part are applied recursively, we get a tree-like geometry of space.
Finally, we must talk about symmetries. These symmetries are also semantic, rather than physical. This means that East and West are conceptually opposite directions. In a physical space, you can change East to West and nothing will change. In a semantic geometry, you change the direction and the meanings will be flipped. So, we cannot do coordinate transformations. In short, this space is absolute rather than relative. Each opposite must exist to make the world complete, therefore, there is symmetry between the opposites and symmetry means that if you want to think in a certain way, then there is a society available for you to live and act out your way of thinking.
So, even the so-called ‘round’ Earth is not physical; it is a semantic construct. In different Vedic scriptures, sometimes the Earth is described as flat, and sometimes as round. And the naïve reading of these scriptures entails that there are two descriptions when factually there is only one. The naïve reading also concludes that when the Earth is described as a sphere, then it must mean a ball of matter as we think of it in modern science. Both these types of readings are false. The three dimensions are subdivisions of each of the two dimensions. And the three-dimensional world has two additional properties of (a) closure, and (b) symmetry, which creates a ‘spherical’ space.
Now, the property of the semantic round earth is that (1) since the space is closed, therefore, you can keep moving on its edges and you will return back to the same point where you started, and (2) opposites in qualities will be found in the opposite points on the earth. This is still not the physical round earth, which is based on people interactions with things. Thus, if people interact with cars in one place, then cars will seem close to them, and we will say: “there are cars in that country”. Factually, cars are not in that country. It is just that people are interacting with cars. These interactions are constructed due to another complicated process of guna and karma whereby we are born to live with certain type of people, and if those people interact with cars, then we interact with them, and we see the cars too.
The Purpose of Vedic Cosmology
The material world is a very elaborate phantasmagoria. This is why is it called māyā. If we can understand how this phantasm is created, then we can get out of the illusion of gender, body, society, nationality, etc. You are not sitting on a table, or holding a phone in your hand. That proximity is an illusion, and produced by the interaction between your body and the table or the phone.
Similarly, the soul is not “in the body”. It is just interacting with the body, and the body is interacting with a number of other things, due to which the illusion of “I” and “mine” is created. If we understand how this phantasm is produced, then we can see our spiritual nature.
This is the reason that cosmology, the nature of matter, space, and time, are described in Vedic scriptures. They are scientific descriptions of how an illusion is produced. And the purpose is to get us out of the illusions. It is not because there is an inherent necessity to know this world to transcend it. It is because we are entangled in various kinds of identities that there is even a need to understand this world.
If Vedic cosmology is described in the same physical way, then this purpose is lost. Then we continue the previous type of thinking.
The spiritual reality also operates on the similar principles with one difference: the distances are not illusions. If two things are interacting, and seem to be close, they are factually close. This is because in the material world we interact with those things that we don’t have, so they are our opposites. In the spiritual world, we interact with those things that are similar to our nature. So, the principle of proximity is ultimately conceptual and it applies to both spiritual and material realities, but our natures are different in the two places.