"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | December 2006  






            Science and Spirituality: Where Do They Meet?








     Any discussion on mind or consciousness must, of necessity, be marginal - at the margins of science, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality; and there are a host of other disciplines willing to pitch in. This is so, not because mind and consciousness are marginal to our preoccupations - there would not be any preoccupation without mind or consciousness - but because both consciousness and mind, though impinging on virtually every domain of human concern, continue to be poorly understood.


     Margins are interesting because they serve as meeting places for domains with discrete boundaries. They also challenge us to look over our fences and confront different world-views. Entities or events taken for granted as facts in one domain often turn out to be less certain when viewed from another. Such contradictions frequently turn meetings at the margins into confrontations. And if the margin happens to be a crossroads, one may end up bewildered by the confusion of viewpoints. Science and spirituality form two such domains - domains that are usually snug in their own belief systems, that choose to meet each other only occasionally, and less commonly, find themselves at crossroads, challenging their own smug notions.




     The Scientific and Spiritual Domains




     The process of science is guided by reason, realism, and realistic reappraisals of its own position. The epitome of deductive reasoning is, of course, mathematical logic. By providing rigorous mathematical models for physical events, mathematics has often fostered the illusion that the method of the physical sciences is rational too. But the latter is essentially dependent on observation and experimentation followed by generalizations based on inductive logic. This is undoubtedly a thoroughly realistic process, but it gets linked to rationality when mathematical or logical models are used to explain observed phenomena, generate hypotheses, and predict
events. That the link between reason and the physical world is not a necessary or straightforward one is evidenced by the need to regularly update scientific theories based on observational or experimental evidence. These reappraisals become СrevolutionaryТ when a well-established theory is overturned or counter-intuitive theories get entrenched. The revolutions brought about by relativity and quantum mechanics are well-known examples.


     The scientific method is essentially naturalistic, as it seeks explanations from within observed sense data and the realm of reason. Its domain is therefore distinctly different from the religious or spiritual, for the latter claims to explore and speak about supersensory or supernatural facts and events. A definition of the Vedas goes thus: СPratyakoeianumitya va yastepayo na budhyate, enao vidanti vedena tasmad-vedasya vedata; That method which is not known through direct perception or inference is made known by the Vedas; it is thus that the Vedas are repositories of knowledge.Т Acharya Shankara is equally categorical in his assertion of the domain of the Vedas: СThe validity of the Vedas lies in revealing what is beyond direct perception. Е even a hundred Vedic texts cannot become valid if they assert that fire is cold or non-luminous!Т


     With such clear-cut territories, science and spirituality (or religion) should have little to argue about, much less quarrel over. But the supersensory realm often appears to impinge on the sensory, if not give birth to it (as is claimed by religion). So proponents of spirituality feel the need to explain the sense-world in terms of their own paradigms. People of science respond would like to imagine ourselves fulfilling all to this intrusion in two ways: either they ignore it, and continue with their descriptions of the world as if the supersensory didn't exist, or they try to debunk such spiritual claims in and through their theories and observations, often forgetting that these theories are not formulated to handle such claims.


     Another, and a more friendly, responce, is to see one's claims verified in the propositions and findings of the other. Thus some science writers see the holism of Eastern religions reflected in the behaviour of matter at the quantum level, while some Eastern spiritual thinkers treat the relativity and quantum theories as modern illustrations of the theory of maya. Such assertions fail to carry much weight because they have little to do with the ingredients that give birth science and spirituality their power: the ability to generate useful technology (the spiritual domain too has its technical sophistications) and make valid predictions. It would therefore be useful to examine the fundamental sources of scientific and spiritual power.




     The scientific discipline




     In his book Inevitable Grace, Piero Ferrucci has succinctly captured the dilemma of the spiritual person confronting the scientific world: "What value is there... in knowing how the scientific mind works and what it aims to accomplish? What deos this path have to reach to someone who sees science as alien, perhaps, even frightening, universe?" He then proceeds to answer these very questions:"It offers scope for new, fertile attitudes and mental habits which are not limited to scientific practice but are the birthright of all intelligent minds: the honesty inherent in confronting facts, the discipline of precision and focus, the resolve never to take anything for granted, the ability to see hidden resemblances, a feeling of conceptual elegance, the art of thinking in a coherent way, wonder in the face of mystery".


     All this sounds very nice, and most of us would like to imagine ourselves fulfilling these criteria and being scientists in our own right. But we will do well to remember what the famoust physicist, Richard Feynman, said during a lecture at a university in Brasil several decadea ago (and he could well have said the same thing in India): "The main purpose of my talks is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brasil!" observed Feynman and this is what he had to say about what followed: "I can see them stir, thinking, "What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes".


     "So tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brasil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brasil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it's amazing that you don't find many physicist in Brasil - why is that?...


     "Then I held up elementary physics textbook they were using. "There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an anclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have "errors" in them - that is, if you look at them, you think that you are looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors - very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the accelerration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling sown the inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of the experimental "results" is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten these results!"


     Feynman's opinion was confirmed by his experience with the students in Brasil: At one examination "one of the students was absolutely super: He answered everything nifty! The examiners asked him what diamagnetism was, and he answered it perfectly. Then they asked, "When light comes at an angle through a sheet of material with a certain thickness, and a certain index N, what happenes to the light?" "It comes out parallel to itself, sir - displaced". "And how much is it displaced?" "I don't know, sir, but I can figure out". So he figured it out. He was very good. But I had, by this time, my suspicions... The first question I ask is, "Can you give me some example of a diamagnetic substance?" "No." Then I asked, "If this book was made of glass, and I was looking at something on the table through it, what would happen to the image if I tilted the glass?" "It would be deflected, sir, by twice the angle you have turned the book." I said, "You havent' got it mixed up with a mirrow have you?" "No, sir!"


     "He has just told me in the examination that the light [image] would be displaced, parallel to itself, and therefore the image would move over to one side, but would not be turned by any angle. He even had figured out how much it would be displaced, but he didn't realize that a piece of glass is a material with an index, and that his calculation had applied to my question".


     Science is about observation and experimentation, not about learning theories and formulae. It is about actually developing the attitudes Ferrucci mentions, not about being able to speak ot write wonderfully about them. And this demands discipline.




     The Spiritual Adhikara




     If the non-specialist speaking about science can cut a sorry figure, holding forth on spiritual issues without a grounding in the subject can be equally naive. Vedanta is not so much about Brahman, Atman, and maya as about the adhikara or qualification to pursue the subject. This qualification involves a four-fold discipline, sadhana catustaya: discrimination (viveka), detachment (vairagya), the six spiritually-favourable mental attributes (samadhi sat sampatti) and yearning for spiritual freedom (mumuksutva). Mental tranquility (sama), self-control (dama), withdrawal from sensual thoughts (uparati), forbearance (titiksa), faith (sraddha), and mental concentration (samadhana) make up the six spiritually-favourable attributes.


     These qualifications have been studied and expounded at length. For our purpose here it would suffice to see the parallels that these have with the scientific attituted outlined by Ferrucci: discrimination is analagous to "the art of thinking in a coherent way"; detachment to "the honesty inherent in confronting facts" and "the resolve never to take anything for granted"; the six mental attributes make for "the discipline for precision and focus" in spiritual life, and sraddha is "wonder (rather then scepticism) in the face of mystery". The desire for spiritual freedom is nothing but the desire to get over one's ignorance and is therefore shared by the scientists.


     It is only when these qualifications are met (and rarely otherwise) that one gets a feel of the spiritual world - of its "laws" and workings, of the "hidden resemblances" and the "conceptual elegance" that lie therein. Both the scientific and spiritual paths call for discipline and practice. A dialoge between these disciplines would have to begin with these basics if it is to be coherent and mutually comprehensible.





     The Scientific Attitude: Encouraged by the magnificient example of Pasteur, I have made it a rule to adopt the method of ignorance in my investigations of the instincts. I read very little. Instead of turning over the leaves of books, an expensive method which is not within my means, instead of consulting others, I set myself obstinately face to face with my subject until I contrive to make it speak. I know nothing. So much the better; my interrogation will be all the freer.


- Jean-Henri Fabre




International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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