The Dawn: June 12, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Mystics and scientists: how to describe the indescribable!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Language can describe what we feel, experience, think and imagine in our unending struggle to understand the world which we are an inseparable part of. But language has its limits which become our limits as Ludwig Wittgenstein aphoristically expresses by saying ‘the limits of language are the limits of my world’.

We are incapable of conceiving the world without language. It in no way implies that what cannot be expressed is non-existent but the inexpressible existent certainly stands to have little meaning for us.

On the one hand language has an immeasurable depth and breadth through a process of self-generation and re-generation and we employ it to make a sense of the world but on the other it has its loosely defined boundaries.

Language loses all its inherent quality of expression when and if it encounters an absolutely new phenomenon; hitherto not observed and not experienced. Occasional presence or occurrence of absolutely new phenomena has historically been reported in the domains of mysticism and sciences which are not contradictory as they are commonly thought to be.

Fritjof Capra, the mystically inclined scientist, talks about the apparent contradictions and paradoxes which the investigation of atomic phenomena offered in early twentieth century. “Many of these paradoxes were connected with the dual nature of subatomic matter, which appears sometimes as particles, sometimes as waves.

‘Electrons’, physicists used to say in those days, ‘are particles on Mondays and Wednesdays and waves on Tuesdays and Thursdays’. And strange thing was that more the physicists tried to clarify the situation, the sharper the paradoxes became”, he writes. And this happened because ‘physicists penetrated deep into the sub-microscopic world, into realms of nature far removed from our macroscopic environment.

Our knowledge of matter at this level is no longer derived from direct sensory experience, and therefore our ordinary language is no longer adequate to describe the observed phenomena.

Like the mystics physicists were now dealing with a non-sensory experience of reality and, like the mystics they had to face the paradoxical aspects of this experience’. Mystics, Zen masters in particular, he tells us, employ riddles and paradoxical riddles to understand non-sensory experience of manifold and seemingly contradictory nature of reality which is beyond the grasp of logical reasoning.

Mystics and scientists both are at loss for words when faced with non-sensory aspects of reality at higher or deeper level. They are stunned into silence. Silence, however meaningful it may be, cannot solve the problem.

All the unusual problems we come across ultimately find the expression of solutions in linguistic constructs no matter how strange or weird they may appear. Since the most potent and enduring means of expression we have is language, mystics and scientists alike are forced to make a new use of it while exploring the unexplored dimension of reality.

The former tend to use metaphors and the latter prefer to take recourse to what one may call mathematical metaphors due to the difference in the forms of their enquiry. What is being achieved by scientists has already been achieved by the mystics; expression of no-sensory experience. What the both do with the coining of metaphors is linked to grasping some facets of reality not encountered in everyday life.

The unusual reliance on metaphor after all is not that unusual if we keep in mind the structure of language. Metaphor plays a crucial role in the making of language and its structural component.

The reason is, explains Guy Deutscher in his ‘The unfolding of language’, that ‘we use metaphors not because of any literary or artistic ambitions, but quite simply because metaphor is the chief mechanism through we can describe and even grasp abstraction’.

Even a highly prosaic piece of writing, he shows, has a ubiquitous presence of metaphor. Why we don’t notice it is simply because with their repeated use, metaphors lose their originality and immediacy. There is ‘a stream of metaphors that runs right through language and flows from the concrete to the abstract -- words drift downstream, they are bleached of their original vitality and turn into pale lifeless terms for abstract concepts, the substance from which the structure of language is formed.

And when at last the river sinks into the sea, these spent metaphors are deposited, layer after layer, and so the structure of language grows, as a reef of dead metaphors’.

If we look at our own spiritual and literary history, we find almost all the mystics, including Bhagats and Sufis, employing metaphor to express what appears to be highly subtle experience of the concrete and abstract in a state of altered consciousness.

Intense existential awareness of change, impermanence, interconnectedness and unity in diversity, which mark mystic insights, are organically linked with physical world and its incredibly complex reality.

And physical world and its reality are what scientists are deeply engaged with. What is common between ancient mystics and modern scientists is experience of reality that is beyond the grasp of our sensory system.

And evoking such experience is only possible through metaphoric expression which makes it sharable. Mystic and scientist have to ride the same boat in search of knowing the knowable unknown. —

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