One Physicist’s first Look at Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of the Universe
Tablet of the Universe written by Abdu’l-Baha has been translated into English in a provisional form here. It is primarily a piece on spirituality and therefore not an exposition of physics. However as Abdu’l-Baha states in the Tablet :
“These are spiritual truths relating to the spiritual world. In like manner, from these spiritual realities infer truths about the material world. For physical things are signs and imprints of spiritual things;”.
Thus perhaps something can yet still be deduced about the physical universe from this tablet. It is my opinion that the words of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha’s exposition represent a profound source of knowledge. Humanity has only barely touched the surface of this great ocean. This article represents my flawed initial attempt to try and correlate what relates to my training as a physicist with my understanding of this Tablet. I see this as perhaps the start of a dialogue on this work which hopefully will in the future lead to responses from scholars of Baha’u’llah’s revelation and experts in Persian and Arabic, who can help us move towards what should be properly regarded as unachievable goal: a full and correct parsing of the ideas contained therein. In fact we should from the outset understand that the meanings hid in this Tablet will only reveal themselves fully through passage of time:
“As weakness and evanescence are inherent in the nature of the contingent world, it was not possible that it should sustain a complete manifestation of the signs and evidences of this Revelation, which hath shone forth from the Summit of Sinai, except in a gradual manner.”
What follows are selected extracts from the Tablet which struck me and my attempt to relate them to current understandings of physics.
Tablet of the Universe Comments:
“Divine and all-encompassing Wisdom hath ordained that motion be an inseparable concomitant of existence, whether inherently or accidentally, spiritually or materially. This movement must be governed by some check or rein, some regulator or director, otherwise order will be disrupted and the spheres and bodies will fall from the heavens. For this reason God brought into being a universal attractive force between these bodies to hold sway over them and govern them, a force deriving from the firm ties, the mighty correspondence and affinity that exist between the realities of these limitless worlds. By the operation of this attractive force those holy and resplendent suns, with their luminous worlds, satellites and planets, circling and orbiting in their heavens, at once exerted attraction and were subject to it, induced motion and were themselves moved, began orbiting and set into orbit other bodies, shone forth and caused others to shine.”
Non-existence of Absolute Rest
The first sentence is an idea Abdu’l-Baha has reiterated in many other tablets, that absolute rest is impossible. This is a well understood consequence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: the fact that absolute zero Kelvin is impossible to reach.
Gravitational Attraction as Entanglement?
The third sentence, although seemingly trivial, when carefully parsed actually might contain some very profound insights. He relates that the universal attractive force is derived “ from the firm ties, the mighty correspondence and affinity that exist between the realities.” One might understand firm ties, correspondence and affinity between realities to represent the nature of quantum entanglement. At its heart quantum entanglement ensures a correlation or correspondence between entangled particles over arbitrary distances. On this point I would be very curious to have experts in the original language and culture weigh in. The question is, how would an individual from Persia in the 19th and early 20th century describe entanglement with the language at his disposal? Furthermore, how would he go about explaining this to an audience of individuals scientifically illiterate by the standards of today?
Most are probably aware from general relativity, that gravity is currently understood as being a result of space-time distortions created by mass-energy. One of the most exciting developments of recent theoretical physics has been the conjecture that space-time is actually a product of quantum entanglement. This idea is supported by the consideration of information preservation in black holes as well as work done in condensed-matter physics and quantum information theory. This has now blown-up into an area of study which has attracted the brightest minds of our day. An excellent introduction to this new idea is here.
The fourth sentence is interesting here due to the fact that he links the universal attractive force to the process of sun’s shinning forth. From a physics point of view gravitation of course is what drives stellar formation and causes suns to shine, a fact which was not known until the process of nuclear fusion was well understood.
Paragraphs 5 and 6
“Know thou that the expressions of the creative hand of God throughout His limitless worlds are themselves limitless. Limitations are a characteristic of the finite, and restriction is a quality of existent things, not of the reality of existence.
This being the case, how can one, without proof or testimony, conceive of creation being bound by limits? Gaze with penetrating vision into this new cycle. Hast thou seen any matter in which God is bounded by limits which He cannot overstep? Nay, by the excellence of His glory! On the contrary, His tokens have encompassed all things and are sanctified and exalted beyond computation in the world of creation.”
Cosmos or Universe is infinite
This theme of limitlessness is repeated several times in the Tablet as well as in other writings of both Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah. It would seem that even if we discover a bound to our current universe the existence of multi-verses would needs exist. Further he says a very interesting thing; “restriction is a quality of existent things, not the reality of existence” . This makes me think of something like the relationship between the quantum wave equation and a particle. The quantum wave in theory permeates all space and thus can be thought of as unlimited while its expression as a particle is limited in space. I have a sense that there is much more to this idea though that relates back to Plato’s ideal forms, which underlie the true nature of existence.
Paragraph 7 and 8
“These are spiritual truths relating to the spiritual world. In like manner, from these spiritual realities infer truths about the material world. For physical things are signs and imprints of spiritual things; every lower thing is an image and counterpart of a higher thing. Nay, earthly and heavenly, material and spiritual, accidental and essential, particular and universal, structure and foundation, appearance and reality and the essence of all things, both inward and outward — all of these are connected one with another and are interrelated in such a manner that you will find that drops are patterned after seas, and that atoms are structured after suns in proportion to their capacities and potentialities. For particulars in relation to what is below them are universals, and what are great universals in the sight of those whose eyes are veiled are in fact particulars in relation to the realities and beings which are superior to them. Universal and particular are in reality incidental and relative considerations. The mercy of thy Lord, verily, encompasseth all things!
Know then that the all-embracing framework that governs existence includes within its compass every existent being — particular or universal — whether outwardly or inwardly, secretly or openly. Just as particulars are infinite in number, so also universals, on the material plane, and the great realities of the universe are without number and beyond computation.”
Scale Invariance or Self Similarity
What Abdu’l-Baha is describing I believe is the principle of scale invariance and the related idea of self similarity which underly the notion of oceans being like drops. In physics this is well recognized and actively studied. In fact Fractal mathematics has been applied as powerful tool to model and study this phenomena. For more in depth discussion of this phenomena see self similarity or scale invariance.
However what is perhaps beginning to be understood is how it might apply to the hierarchy of physical laws, moving from particular laws to increasingly universal laws. An example of this would be the discovery of the particular physical laws such as Ampere’s law for moving charges and Faraday’s Law for magnetic flux. Then several years later Maxwell and Einstein with relativity, unified them in such a way that they could be expressed as a single field represented by a single four dimensional tensor. Then later quantum field theory demonstrated that this field arose from the application of a rotational phase symmetry of the quantum field.
There is also an old idea, that our universal constants like the speed of light or planck’s constant actually might have changed over the deep time of the universe and are properties given by some as yet not understood underlying geometry of space-time (e.g. see “New varying speed of light theories”). Paul Dirac, one of the developers of Quantum Field theory, was a proponent of such ideas.
Whether or not the physical constants have varied over the life of our particular universe is one question which may or may not be true. However personally I am more inclined towards the idea that the value of our constants are probably related to each other and a product of some sort of geometry or an overarching structure inherent in reality. This seems an antidote to arguments about the fine tuning of the universe’s constants. Some may promote fine tuning as evidence of divine design, however I have an instinctual distaste for this viewpoint since I think the divine hand is much more subtle and works through the universal laws of nature and not like a watch maker. As Baha’u’llah says in the Tablet of Wisdom, “Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator”.
What is not yet appreciated and seems new is the idea that this progression from particular laws to more general laws might be an infinite process and could never terminate into some final theory of everything. For example I could imagine the day may come where we understand all the major forces as manifestations of single field in a so-called unified field theory, however there still might be principles which govern how the underlying field and its constants are created and sustained which will remain unanswered. Thus one could imagine a process of infinite progression towards greater and greater universal laws which Abdu’l-Baha seems to be referring to.
“Know then that, as hath been clearly handed down in the accounts of old, these great orbits and circuits fall within subtle, fluid, clear, liquid, undulating and vibrating bodies, and that the heavens are a restrained wave because a void is impossible and inconceivable.”
This sentence describes the great orbits in a manner which reminds me of how the electron orbitals are understood. Electron orbitals, are described mathematically as spherical harmonics or a kind of standing wave bound by the attraction of the force generated by the electric field of the atom. Now Abdu’l-Baha appears to be describing the physical heavens and not the atomic orbitals or the spiritual realm, though given the nature and process of the Tablet he could be also be speaking of any number of grades of existence.
However if we proceed taking it at face value, both quantum field theory and general relativity are field theories, in that the forces arise from the effects of the continuum. As a result both sustain the propagation of waves. More recently the prediction of gravitational waves given by general relativity has been demonstrated in the groundbreaking LIGO experiment. Thus strictly speaking the heavens or space-time could be understood as a ‘restrained wave’ held by the mass-energy of the universe and acted on by dark energy.
Non-existence of a void
This idea is repeated several places in the tablet and I would claim it is supported by current quantum field theory for which empty space is not really empty, underlying it is a field from which particles pop in and out of existence. It is bubbly or foamy thing. Actually the vacuum can never reach absolute zero energy. In all space there exists what is called ‘zero-point’ energy. This again is a direct consequence of quantum mechanics. Incidentally it has also been speculated that the zero point energy is somehow related to dark energy which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. However zero point energy is orders of magnitude too large to account for the observed cosmological constant. This actually represents one of the big unanswered questions of physics.