My friend Suhit wrote to me pointing out a site by a guy called Gurudev. One of the posts is titled “Speed of Light explained in Rig Veda“. Suhit wondered what I thought of the explanation and so I dutifully went and read that post and replied to Suhit.
First, I think Gurudev and I differ in our understanding of the word ‘explained.’ To explain something means “to account for something, to give reasons for something.” To explain is not the same as baldly stating something. I can simply state that “A is B.” However, to explain “A is B” I have to through a series of statements state reasons, provide evidence, make arguments why A happens to be B and so on. In the post, Gurudev tells us that the Vedas (indirectly) state — not explain — the speed of light to be something and that something is pretty darn close to the speed of light as known to modern science.
I don’t know what the point of the whole post was. Perhaps it was to argue that the Vedas are scientific. I don’t buy that. Here’s why.
In general, I think that science is what we call the painstaking method of investigating the natural world and from observations deduce some understanding of how the natural world works. It is not guessing, it is not conjecturing, it is not dreaming up of stuff. There is conjecturing, and guessing, and dreaming up of stuff — but that is perhaps the first step in each climb up the mountain of the unknown. Following that first step, are lots of very non-conjecturing, non-guessing, non-dreaming steps. At some point, given enough minds working on the problem at hand, a little concrete step is formed. And then others climb up that step and start proceeding upwards from there. It is a slow and gradual ascent, built upon the efforts of others that went before.
If some bit of knowledge is scientifically established, then you can ask how that is known. If I say that the speed of light is 3×10**8 meters per second, you can ask me how I know that. I will point out to an experiment that measured it — and show that the experiment has been repeated by various people and that the result is verifiable. Repeatable, verifiable, falsifiable — those are adjectives that are associated with a scientific fact and how that fact was indeed arrived at.
Conjectures and facts are distinguishable. I can conjecture that all life is related. That all life has a common origin was a conjecture at some point. That conjecture was provoked by naive observation. That was then a hypothesis. Based on that, Darwin investigated the natural world systematically. Then he conjectured a mechanism to account for the diversity of life even though the origin is common. That mechanism he called “natural selection.” He did not know anything about genes or DNA or any of the modern scientific facts that relate to biology. His theory got added confirmation when all the later facts were discovered.
If 2,000 years ago someone said all life is related, it is a conjecture because it could not be at that time demonstrated that all life shares the same basic DNA. It would have been an intuitively arrived conclusion. But intuition is not a very reliable guide. Naive intuition says that the world does not move, or that the earth is essentially flat. Or that matter has a structure that is stable. Or even that the mountains don’t crumble into the seas.
The people who wrote the Vedas were mortals. They may have been much much smarter than the average human being but still they were limited in their understanding of the world. We all are. Of course, some people’s intuition — guesses, so to speak — is more accurate than others on some matters. But they are just leaps of faith. Leaps of faith are not concrete steps that others can use to arrive at the conclusion that one intuitively arrives at. If you take an intuitive leap and reach a conclusion X, then you have to do the hard work of building steps that others can follow and climb up to where you leaped intuitively, and then themselves be persuaded of the truth of X.
Einstein leaped intuitively and got to the point where it says that the speed of light is a limit and that it is the same for all observers irrespective of their frame of reference. Then he worked out the implications of that conjecture. And then people tested the implications and found that indeed things seem to be the way that Einstein described them to be. So it adds validity to the conjecture that indeed Einstein was right.
If we all start guessing and do it for a reasonable amount of time, by chance itself one of us will be right at some point. It is a lottery.
The Vedas are not a scientific document. They are mystical, philosophical, even magical. But not scientific. If the Vedas have poetically described something that just happens to such that it can be interpreted to be in accord with today’s scientific understanding of the world, it is interesting and surprising but the Vedas cannot be taken to be reliable on scientific matters. If you do selective data mining, quote mining, and other purpose driven activities, you can find all sorts of interesting things in all sorts of documents. The operative word is “purpose driven.” If I already know the speed of light, I can do the calculations from Vedic sources to come up with that number or close to it. Here’s a test I can propose. Tell a person who is an expert in the Vedas but who does not know the speed of light to figure out from the Vedas what the speed of light is. I bet you dollars to donuts that he will not be able to come close. Since he has knowledge in general, he can surely tell that the speed of light must be very large — even infinite. But he cannot work backwards like Gurudev did knowing the current value of the speed of light.
I am aware of the lines from Carl Sagan in his series “COSMOS” where he said that of the mythologies in the world, the Hindu myth of creation comes close in its estimate of the age of the universe. Very intuitively clever people did that sort of conjecturing. But that is all it is: a nice bit of guess work.
Now to another matter. Nuclear technology and flying machines supposedly available to ancient Indians. That is so much hogwash that I cannot even begin to clear it up. Perhaps the next time.