Commentaries

VVRS

Various Views On Religion and Science

1. Reflections on Science and Religion

Homo sapiens is one of millions of species that thrive and perish on this beautiful buoy in the cosmic sea. Every species is unique in its own way. Humans are unique in that because of the enormous complexity of their brains, the range and variety of our experiences are greater than  those of any other biological entity. We eat, drink, procreate and propagate like other creatures; but we also reflect and rejoice, sing and dance, create art and science, build places of worship, conceptualize truth and justice, and engage in a thousand other mentally, morally, and spiritually enriching activities.  Science and religion are among the loftiest expressions of the human spirit.

Science is a quest to explain the world, to understand natural phenomena in a consistent, coherent, and rational framework. Through its meticulous methodology science has shown the causes of rain and thunder and a thousand other things we observe every day. It has also revealed the marvels of the microcosm, the molecular bases of life, the magnificence of invisible galaxies invisible, and much more. It has eradicated diseases afflicting the human body, and needless fears afflicting the human mind.

Religions arose from the recognition of the significance of consciousness in a mindless universe. They have formulated ethical principles that channel our instincts for gratification and restrain self-centered aggressive behavior. They have fostered caring and compassion, inspired great art and glorious music, given rise to subtle metaphysics, created magnificent architecture, and provoked massive scholarship.

Religions also carry the weight of tradition.  Sacred history which is deeply etched in the collective psyche of billions all over the world tells us that religions emerged from the visions of Hindu sage-poets, from the covenant of Moses with God, from the enlightenment of the Buddha, from the commitment of Mahavira to non-violence, from the sermons of Jesus of Nazareth, from the revelations to Prophet Mohammed, and from such momentous milestones in the cultural saga of humanity.

The core question in the conflict between science and religion is: Which is primary: matter-energy or consciousness? From the scientific perspective, we live on an inconsequential speck in the vastness surrounding us. Consciousness is but an emergence from the brain which was an accidental eruption among the countless random formations in a blind universe. It is but a glitch in the universe story, a wink in the temporal stretch.

From the religious perspective, the universe would be dismal as a dungeon without our presence. But for us, all the dust and stone, planets and stars, waves and vibrations would be cast in a dark expanse, unnoticed and unsung for all eternity. Light and color, beauty and splendor arise but in human heads. From science's perspective, we have descended from apes; from the religious perspective we are also descended from poets and sages and saints. Science informs us that the matter in us was formed in the core of supernovas; religions affirm that the consciousness in us is related to the Cosmic Whole. 

Science arises when the finite mind tries to grasp the infinite complexity of the world. Religious experience arises when the finite mind contemplates on the infinite mystery. Both science and religion instill awe for the wonders of the world, respect for the flora and fauna that enrich our planet, and reverence for air and fire, for sunlight and soil, for rivers and oceans and for all the myriad forces that sustain life.

 

2. The traditional mode: views on revered personages

All of us function in the framework of values and worldviews. Religions furnish us with a grand backdrop for life which provides meaning and purpose in the framework of a community. From this perspective, all of us are religious one way or another. It has been rightly said that in a deeper sense human beings are more religious than rational.

There are many dimensions to religions. Of these, the two most important relate to the theoretical framework and the practical aspect, and the associated value system.

There are a variety of ways of being religious. Perhaps the most common one is what may be called the traditional mode. Here too there can be a wide spectrum in theory and practice. Generally speaking, on the theoretical side, a person following the traditional mode accepts as absolute truth the sayings of the recognized authorities of the tradition. In the Hindu world these include saints, gurus, babas, and certain revered texts. Which of these one accepts will depend on one's sectarian affiliation.

One reason for this is that in the traditional framework,  certain historical personages are regarded as embodiments of the Divine, or at least that they have achieved higher spiritual knowledge and wisdom, either by virtue of their own spiritual efforts or through actions in previous births.

Some of them are historical personages. Such, for instance, are the saint-scholars Shankaracharya and Ramanuja. Others are revered through the works they have left behind, more than for their historicity. Such are the Vedas and the Upanishads. Then, there are some instances of the text and its traditionally accepted author. The Bhagavad Gita and Lord Krishna stand out as the supreme example in this case.

Finally, there are the current and more recent masters of spirituality. In the Hindu world, every generation has its own foci of spiritual attention. During the past century or so we have had, for example, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, at least two Sai Babas, and Prabhupada, Ma, and others. They attract numerous devotees who experience significant spiritual fulfillment in their presence and from their teachings. Thus, aside from worship of the traditional gods of the religion, one calls oneself a devotee or follower of this swami or that guru.

I recognize that such saintly personages provide - and have provided over time - much comfort and spiritual experience to their countless followers, often serving as the closest one gets to a god for the longings of many people. They have attained what is generally recognized as spiritual enlightenment and the associated charisma.

But all this, to me, does not put them on a higher pedestal except in a community setting. I have seen some of them, and I pay due respects to them with folded hands in reverential modes. This comes to me as a result of cultural conditioning.  In other words, while I respect such revered personages and their teachings, I have never been able to take any of them as more divine than any other human being I run into in the course of my everyday life.

Thus, in my mind, the lives and thoughts of even the greatest swamis and saints of the tradition are as subject to logical challenges and critical analyses as of any philosopher or writer. I feel this way not only because, I rather suspect that when this is done, one can always find aspects which are either objectionable or not altogether as becoming of the near-god souls they are supposed to be, but also because, in my view, no human being of whatever religion or stature or reports of charisma, knows more about God and the hereafter than any other.

 

3. Views on the Vedas

Every religion has its sacred works. In the Christian tradition the Bible is reckoned as the most sacred writing, and it is called Scripture (always with a capital S). The term is used by English-speaking Hindus to describe the Vedas and other such works revered in the tradition as Hindu scriptures. Technically, this is not quite correct since Scripture literally refers to what has been written down. Vedic mantras are believed to have been heard by  rishis, and transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition, and are therefore more properly known as shruti (that which has been heard).

Be that as it may, in the traditional framework, the Vedas are to be taken as eternal knowledge.  This is reasonable if one accepts that their sources were super-human, and their contents revealed to Vedic rishis by a higher source. There have been thinkers and religious movements within the Hindu tradition that have rejected this thesis. Those who do not consider the Vedas to be God-given are described as nâstikas by the orthodoxy.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a swamiji who spoke fairly well about the Vedas and their significance. He chanted some of the mantras beautifully. I was very impressed with his knowledge and presentation. During the question and answer period a  student, who had not grown up in traditional Hindu culture, asked the saffron-robed swamiji when the Vedas were composed. The learned speaker answered something to the effect that the question that was raised was "more blasphemous" to Hindus than Rushdie's Satanic Verses were to Muslims. He went on to explain that the Vedas were eternal and impersonal (apaurusheya), and have existed since the birth of the universe. 

The young man had asked the question out of a genuine wish to know about his tradition, and he felt terribly embarrassed. Was the swamiji wrong? I don't know,  but he was honest from the traditional perspective. Was the student wrong in posing the question? Not in my view.  I thought he was sincere and no less honest. Though he was unfamiliar with the system in which traditionalists look at such matters, his question was natural and valid in the age in which we live, while the answer he got may seem very strange to someone who is familiar with biological and cultural evolution.

I have respect for the traditional belief on this question. I am familiar with Sri Aurobindo's profoundly meaningful analysis of the symbolism behind Vedic hymns, and I was fascinated by his  thesis that the Vedic seers expressed in a twilight language experiences which it was impossible to convey directly. I liked his interpretation of Vedic sacrifice as an elaborate effort to transform humans into the divine.

With all that, I do not and I cannot accept the notion that the Vedas have been there all through cosmic history, much less that Sanskrit sounds have existed in the void of space for billions of years until they were recorded in the brains of Hindu sages a few millennia ago. I believe that the Vedas were uttered or written down in historical times, perhaps some 3500 or more years ago, but certainly not millions or billions of years ago.

There have always been Hindus who have held such views about the Vedas, especially if they have gone through the texts as poetry rather than simply as mantras to be recited by rote. As I see it, the poetic stature and spiritual value of Vedic hymns are not affected in any way if they happen to be just a couple of thousand  rather than 13 billion years old. I am inclined to think that being a Hindu in these times has little to do with the acceptance or non-acceptance of the divinity or the eternity of the Vedas.

By mythologizing sublime poetry by our foremost thinkers, which convey deep-felt mystical experiences, we are not elevating them to higher levels. 

 

4. On Temples

I have always considered places of worship to be among the most uplifting edifices. Whether it is cathedral or kovil, mosque, pagoda, or synagogue, there is something awesome about structures which were inspired by pure faith and erected from love of God. Places dedicated to the Divine are joyous expressions of the human heart to give thanks and to reach out to the Unfathomable Mystery that has given rise to conscious life.

As a Hindu I have been to many temples in India and beyond. In my boyhood days I used to visit them with the piety instilled in me by my parents and cultural milieu. I admired the colorful icons (mûrtis), beautifully adorned and often garlanded. Whether it was serene Rama-Sita or joyous Radha-Krishna, austere Shiva, ferocious-looking Kali, charming Ganesha, or mysterious Venkateshvara, I have stood in their presence with customary reverence, sometimes recited a mantra or two. I have circumambulated deities in holy precincts, washed myself in temple ponds, dipped into sacred rivers in temple towns. I have sipped sanctified water from my cupped palm, and relished prasâdam, free or for a fee. I have stood in line for darshan and tipped minor temple employees to get unmerited priority in the queue, and flung flowers at the altar with fellow worshipers. I have prayed shamelessly to Sarasvati for good grades in school. All this I did because I was convinced that Divinity was present in those adorable and adored mûrtis.

Later in life I became consciously aware that practically all the temples into which I gained easy entry were verboten to some of my fellow Hindus, because they belonged to lower castes. During a visit to a major temple at Canjeevaram I saw a banner proclaiming that non-Hindus were not welcome. Slowly I began to feel that temples were not as sacred as they once were for me. I reflected on Prahalada's statement that God is in a sliver as also in a pillar, meaning that Divinity is not confined to church or mosque, to temple or gurudvara. I came to look upon these as centers with sectarian significance, and historical reminders of how communities paid homage to their different versions of the Divine. But the Divine is equally present in lakes and mountains, in caves and dungeons, in filthy puddles and in fancy palaces, in minute atoms and in grand galaxies too.

I still go to temples, for sure, and participate in bhajans, in arati, and in relay readings of Tulsi Das. I do all this, not because I believe God dwells especially in temples, but because temples are part of my heritage, the icons are associated with my youthful years and with the worldviews of my ancestors. I recognize that temples have deep spiritual significance for vast numbers of my co-religionists. And I am happy for them.

For me, however, communion with the Cosmic Mystery has no longer anything to do with priest or puja, or periodic rituals of the tradition. I am not against these, and I continue to be culturally enriched when I watch them: they are aesthetically satisfying and have a magic implicit in them by virtue of the weight of centuries. Yet, from my current perspectives, their value lies primarily in the happy memories of years and eras gone by. If I am now moved by places of worship, whether Hindu or other, it is for their impressive architecture beautified by marble, stained glass, carved pillars, old sculptures and such. I also reflect on the associated myths that have inspired great art, music, poetry, dance and drama. I also regard places of worship as convenient community centers for celebrating festivals, singing sacred songs, and listening to discourses. But they are as essential for my own religious experience as they once were. I feel fortunate there was a time when temples added meaningful experience to my life, but I also feel a sense of liberation that I am not affiliated to them any more in those ancient ways.

 

5. On rational, irrational, and transrational

An ancient maxim, sometimes attributed to Aristotle, is that Man is a rational animal. We should take this to mean that human beings are capable of rational thinking, rather than that they are always rational. But what is rational thinking? Generally, we describe that as rational which conforms to basic logical reasoning, and is also consistent with well established facts of common experience and observation. Through evolution, human brains, though each is unique in its own way, share certain commonalties in their functioning. One of these is the universal logic to which normal brains conform.

Perhaps nowhere else are the principles of strict rational thought as meticulously and successfully applied as in mathematics and theoretical science. On the other hand, when it comes to issues involving history, politics, religion, and the like, logic is seldom unadulterated. Subtle factors, springing from emotions, ideals, frustrations,  and cultural conditioning come into action. They play important roles in our being human. Though they often color our reasoning, without them we would be merely thinking machines, spewing out impeccably correct results that follow from inputs to the brain, but devoid of the feelings that make life rich and meaningful.

Decades ago, during the horrific Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta, a Hindu mob circled a Muslim vegetable vendor at the Lake Market, and beat him up to death. This was irrational behavior. My father intervened and tried to prevent the lynching, risking his own safety and in vain. In that context, my father's behavior was not rational either. 

Reflecting on this episode years later, it occurred to me that there are, in fact, two ways in which one might deviate from rationality. The first is through the irrational mode. Here, one adopts positions or engages in actions which are grotesque, absurd, silly, and even dangerous. Abusing through words or deeds, regarding groups of people as inferior, refusing to accept evidence against one's cherished beliefs (such as the earth's rotundity, or biological evolution), are all examples of irrationality. None of us, scientists, mathematicians, scholars, intellectuals, whoever, is altogether immune from spurts of irrationality. Sometimes institutions, political ideologies, economic schemes, religious systems, or even governments, become irrational. Any individual or system that preaches needless hate and hurt qualifies as an irrational entity.

The second way in which one may digress from rationality is through beliefs and actions that are non-hurtful, fulfilling, uplifting, enriching, or helpful to others. I call this transrationality. Thus, while elements in the religious framework may be non-rational, religious behavior need not always be irrational. It can be transrational. Praying for the well-being of others, and going through the rites and rituals of a tradition, are instances of transrational acts. Doing an act of sacrifice, giving up one's own needs for the service of the sick and the needy, are transrational gestures. Religious doctrines which call for the death and destruction of those who don't subscribe to particular tenets or prophets, which deny salvation to non-believers, or deny spiritual rights to some members of one's own group, are all examples of irrationality in religious systems. On the other hand, singing hymns to the Divine and reading from time-honored texts are instances of transrational elements in religions. Transrational belief and behavior are meaningful and fulfilling.

Art, poetry, and the tales in mythology are transrational.  They add to our aesthetic experience. But it is important reckon the distinction between the real which is related to rationality and the ideal or the imagined which may be transrational. Rationality must be respected for intelligent living, and transrationality cherished for meaningful life.

 

6. On sectarian affiliation

Of ten major religions of the world, eight - Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai - are known to have historical founders. Hinduism doesn’t have an identifiable initiator, and with Judaism, the names of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses figure as prominent first Jews.

In every religious tradition, splinter groups have arisen because religions are based on doctrines. New thinkers emerge who claim that their own interpretations of the original doctrines are more faithful to the religion, and argue that the religion practiced by the majority is an unacceptable transformation or corruption. Break-off groups from a religion are called sects. There are hundreds of religious sects connected with the various religions. Scholars of religion make distinctions between sects and denominations; the latter term usually refers to groups with a very large following.

In the Hindu world we many sects. But not all of them were formed as splinter groups. The Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, and Smarta sects which are the major subdivisions of Hinduism, date back to very ancient times. They too don't have traceable historical founders.  Dvaitins and Advaitins base their separateness on different visions about the nature of Ultimate Reality. These sects were started by eminent philosopher-sages who (as also their scholar-followers) have argued their positions ably through debates and books. Sages like Kabir, Sai Baba, and Swaminarayan have also initiated their own sects. Some Hindu sects, like the ones initiated by Gautama Buddha and Guru Nanak, have evolved into separate religions.

The advantages of being affiliated to a particular religious sect are not unlike those of belonging to a happy family. We feel a special kinship with our brothers and sisters, with our cousins and aunts and uncles. This is a circle with whose members we share common experiences, and  in which we feel morally and sentimentally comfortable.

Indeed, in the Hindu tradition, traditional affiliation generally results from one's birth in a family, which has for generations belonged to that sect. Thus, it does not result from a conscious acceptance of the doctrines professed by the founder of the sect. In fact,  very few Hindus belonging to any of the major sects can spell out the tenets on which their sect is based, nor explain how these differ from those of other Hindu sects. This situation changed in the 19th century with the formation of new sects which emerged as a result of our encounter with Christianity. That is how the Brahmos, the Arya Samajis, the Prarthana Samajis, and the Ramakrishna movements arose. In these and similar instances, one gains membership through conscious decision.  In any event, sectarian bonds, when healthily nurtured, can give people a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

Though conscious sectarian affiliation can inform or reinforce doctrinal beliefs, and though such reinforcements could bring spiritual benefits to its practitioners, my birth in a Tamil Shaivite smartha family has not added much of significance to my own religious life. I have learned some mantras and modes of puja specific to this group, and have gathered some understanding of its metaphysics, but all this has not helped me be a better human being, or even a better religious person in any way I can recognize.

There have been many squabbles between members of various sects even within the Hindu tradition, and more hurtful internecine hatred and persecution within other religious traditions. My own respect for sectarian subdivisions is therefore not of a high order. As to my religious affiliation, I regard myself as a human being first, then a Hindu, and that’s all.

 

7. On theism and atheism

We don't know who first thought or became aware of God, nor even when or where  the recognition or the imagining of God first arose. All we know is that in practically all cultures there has been some notion or other of a superior being that is above and beyond the world of perceived reality. Such a being has been variously called and described in many regions and religions of the human family.

God, in most religious frameworks, refers to a supernatural personage who is ultimately responsible for the creation of the universe, its sustenance, and its possible ultimate dissolution. This seems to be a reasonable, but by no means a universally demonstrable, proposition. Those who are convinced of the existence of such a God are called theists (Greek theos: God). Those who explicitly reject this notion are the atheists.

It is important to distinguish between metaphysical theism (MT) and religious theism (RT). Not making this distinction can lead to needless controversies. MT posits God as a plausible explanation for the emergence and existence of the universe, and stops at that. RT goes beyond the proposition of a Creator. It envisages God as someone with extraordinary capabilities and several attributes, most of which are infinitely enlarged versions of the best of human qualities. Thus, the God of religions is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere. This God is imagined to be kind, loving, merciful, noble, good and everything positive that one can imagine. Such a God is pictured in some traditions in a human form, with head, body, and limbs, even with a gender. The God of historical religions is primarily male, though Hinduism also associates a female principle (Shakti) to its three primary male-divinities.

Atheists say that there is really no God except in the human mind. Though I won’t call myself an atheist, I can think of at least three good reasons why the God of religions could seem highly improbable to some. First, God cannot have humanoid aspects because the human form is just a couple of million years old in the 13 + billion years of cosmic existence. Such a God would not have spoken to just a handful of people in a few languages, as alleged by the great religions. Thirdly - and this is a powerful argument – a merciful God will not tolerate the kind of unwarranted pain and suffering that we see all too often in nature and in human experience. How can a compassionate God, atheists ask in anger, allow innocent children, helpless invalids, and praying persons to die in earthquakes and tsunamis, in hurricanes, tornados and the like?

But then, how did the idea of God emerge in the human mind? Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, cultural evolutionists and other scientists have offered a variety of interesting answers to this question, just as in distant times, theologians offered a series of proofs for the existence of God. Scientific theories of theogenesis often account for the notion of a generic God, rather than for the Gods of particular religions, such as Marduk, Minerva, Zeus, Vishnu, Allah and the hundred other gods and god-like beings that have become part of the religious culture and psyche of humanity.

And yet, while one may challenge the logic that upholds anthropomorphic gods, one should also recognize that belief in a religious God is deep in the emotional and mystical experience of billions of people. Not all theists are fools as atheists sometimes say, and not all atheists are evil as theists often believe.

My own view is that one cannot rule out an undergirding consciousness in the experienced world (the Hindu Brahman) on purely logical grounds. The principle of metaphysical theism cannot be as easily demolished as notions of historical divinities.

 

8. On the virtues and vices of theism

I am personally not convinced that religious theism, as I defined it in the last essay, can be defended on purely logical grounds. But I recognize it as a valid and  meaningful belief for vast numbers of people belonging to the various religious systems of the human family. Now I would like to reflect a little on some of its merits and demerits. 

It is a fact of experience that belief in a personal God, irrespective of whether such a God exists or does not, contributes considerably to the psychological well-being of many normal people. We experience a sense of security from the conviction that there is a superior being that cares for our safety, security, and happiness.

For the theist, the idea of an overseeing God could carry greater weight than conscience which is the internal witness of all our thoughts, unuttered words, and deeds, unobserved by, and often unknown to, anyone else. The awareness of or belief in an inescapable  supernatural moral police has restrained countless souls from licentious thoughts, obnoxious words, and illicit actions, because of the certainty of being caught one way or another for engaging in unethical modes.

Then again, at a deeper level, the conviction that sooner or later we will be in the presence of, or merge with, a cosmic benevolent God gives courage and hope in the context of one's ultimate phase as a conscious being here on earth.

Moreover, if one feels a need to express one's gratitude for all the happiness and richness that one feels as a human being here on earth, there is in the vision of a personal God a meaningful target for that thankfulness which, otherwise, would have to be addressed either to a vacuous non-entity or be stored within oneself with place to go.

Belief in a personal God has inspired creative artists to draw and to paint, to sculpt and to compose in the form and name of the God of their religious persuasion. It is doubtful that without belief in a personal God, in no matter what form and name, human culture would have so grandly produced so much magnificent art and music and worship-centers in various parts of the world.

Thus, in my view, the theistic framework has been of enormous value to human beings in practically all cultures.

One might then wonder why thoughtful people would object to theism, given that it has so many positive aspects. Leaving aside the absence of solid evidence or rationalistic support for theism, innumerable acts of hurt and hate have been committed in the name of personal Gods. Extending human attributes to a personal God has resulted in  angry and destructive Gods: Gods which blurt out in rage and curse humans to death and damnation for straying away from their prescribed course. The Greek Gods were as human in their meanness, vengefulness, and jealousies as were ordinary mortals. This is also true in the case of the puranic Gods in Hindu lore where Gods compete with each other for securing the first place for worship. It is doubtful that any God would stoop to such levels, but people believing in personal gods have.

In my view, the idea that one’s own version of God is the only correct one is a legitimate position within a given religious system. But to claim that it is the only God there ought to be is a dangerous next step. While one may spread the good word, when a person or a group adopts a position as to which God has a right to exist, it becomes difficult to restrain oneself from denigrating the gods of other people, and even destroy with ugly violence their symbols of the Divine. Though it may not always find explicit expression, there is potential for hurtful fanatical behavior in religious theism.

 

9. On the virtues and vices of atheism

Atheism is the emphatic affirmation of the non-existence of God. It has a long history. From Anaxagoras in ancient Greece to M. N. Roy in modern India there have been many atheist thinkers over the centuries. Various shades of atheism have been there in China, Greece, India, and the West.

Often atheists have had to pay a price. They have been burnt at stake in medieval Europe for their sin. In the Soviet Union and Communist China, it has been just the opposite: Belief in God was/is the crime. In classical India, atheists were not looked upon with much respect. To a degree this is true in modern India and in the U.S.A. also. However, atheists can remain Hindu. No aracharya or Baba or Hindu organization can boot an atheist Hindu out. In this matter, the Hindu world is as enlightened as the modern secular West where atheists can live in freedom and speak out boldly.

When we are born, we are neither theists nor as atheists, but as ignoro-theists, i.e. individuals who have never even heard of God. Belief in God arises because from one’s upbringing. One reason why many people are theists is that they have grown up in families affiliated to a theistic religion. Atheism is the erasing of a belief that was inculcated (like love of parents or respect for elders) in an individual at a pre-reasoning stage. All our ancestors some 50,000 and more years ago were ignoro-theists. Nothing to be proud of or be ashamed about. There are probably pristine ignoro-theist cultures still in the world.

In history, there have been two kinds of influential atheists: To the first belong philosophical atheists.  Some of them have been enlightened humanists. Charvaka and Brihaspati in ancient India, Lucretius of Rome, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins in the modern world come to mind. On the other hand, Stalin, Mao Zedon and Phol Pot are among the notorious monsters who were rabid atheists.

Enlightened atheists are intellectually honest and meticulously rational. They can be as caring and compassionate as truly religious persons. But now and again they can become as rabid in their non-belief as some religious fanatics. Atheist extremists are not only unbending in their denial of God, sometimes they have the same kind of passion for converting believers into their fold. This in itself may not be bad, but in this context some of them display unwarranted arrogance and speak with contempt about theists. Atheists equate belief in God with affiliation to religions. They regard religion as a competitor to science in explaining origins and ends. As a result, they think that all religious people are misguided or ill-informed. This, to me, is like saying that musicians are misguided because they don’t understand that musical notes can be Fourier-analyzed.

Another serious drawback with atheism is that unwittingly or otherwise, it deprives people of a metaphysical source for hope in despondency, consolation in bereavement, and joy in celebrations. This is one reason why it fails to draw many adherents. Philosophical atheism is intellectually sophisticated, just as philosophical theism is, but it has little practical value. Atheism is allied to modern science, just as theism is allied to cultural comfort.  Atheists don’t always realize that one can be decent and caring even if one is a theist. Belief in God also gives inner peace to countless people who feel that this is more significant, relevant, and important for sane living than being right or bright.

Most traditional religious theists are proprius-theists (believing in their own God) and allus-atheists (rejecting the gods of other religions). Most philosophical atheists are insensitive to the deeper emotional and cultural needs of people and groups.

   

10. The agnostic approach

Once I witnessed a heated debate between an ardent Christian and a devout Hindu as to how we will be rewarded or punished in the long run by the Almighty. The Christian spoke about the day of reckoning and eventual entry into heaven or elsewhere, while the Hindu argued for successive reincarnations for paybacks until one finally merged with the Source. I was more impressed by the certainty with which the participants argued their tenets than with the arguments that each presented. I must confess that I was persuaded by neither. Though both made passionate cases for their respective position, the strengths of their arguments lay mainly, it seemed to me, in how ably they revealed the weaknesses in the opponent's position. In this, they both did this very well.

Then again, both were merely repeating what they had been taught, and there wasn't much indication that either of them would convince the other by reasoning and logic. It occurred me that views on these matters are formed from an early age in keeping with the religious framework which has been drilled into a person, or perhaps from books one reads later in life, but not on the basis of empirical evidence. 

I must admit that I have seldom had great confidence in narratives about the very distant past and prognostications about the very distant future, even in the scientific framework, let alone as presented in religious doctrines. This is not to suggest that they are wrong, but merely to recognize the limitations of my own mind when it comes to comprehending the Infinite and its possibilities. As a result, when it comes to fundamental questions, I am more inclined to be what T. H. Huxley called an agnostic.  I am glad that I live at a time and in a country where one can be an agnostic or an atheist; there are and have been places where you better accept as true whatever the authorities - religious or lay - dictate, or else... Indeed, aside from economic factors and historical rancor, whether or not such freedom of thought in religious matters is to be maintained and spread or restricted and disallowed is a cause for some of the tensions in the world.

For ages, keen minds have been enunciating divergent views on God and the hereafter. Their loyal followers have sometimes engaged in verbal and physical combat. Corporal punishment for wrongdoing is bad enough. But to pester and persecute, or look down upon fellow humans because of their differing notions of what constitutes God and afterlife, seem to me expressions of extraordinary perversion of the true religious spirit.

Someone once said that agnosticism could lead to paralysis of action, because if one is not sure of heaven or hell, or of a happy rebirth, or of a punishing or rewarding God, one cannot choose between moral options. I don't see why uncertainty about long-range aftermath should necessarily lead to naughty behavior, or why honesty, decency, truthfulness and other such social virtues should be linked to receiving a bonus sooner or later, in this birth or in the next or on doomsday or whenever.

As I see it, I doubt that ultimate questions like the existence or nature of God, the relevance of man in the cosmic scheme; long-range meanings of love and laughter; and possibilities of post-mortem persistence can ever be answered to the satisfaction of all.

While I plead ignorance, I respect the convictions of atheists and theists. I am not telling anyone, "You are wrong," but only that "I don’t know for sure." I am impressed, but seldom offended, by the certainty with which people proclaim their truths about ultimate questions.  I believe that it is enriching to ponder these, and accept some non-hurtful conclusions that are fulfilling to oneself, even if it is only “I don’t know.” Acceptance of some mysteries is for me as fulfilling as its resolution is for others.

 

11. Analytical and traditional approach to sacred history

Questions relating to the historicity of the personages and episodes mentioned in religious literature have been vexing scholars for at least two centuries. It is difficult for some to take as a historical fact that Moses met with God and received the Ten Commandments personally from Him. Many papers and volumes have been written on the historical Jesus. Such inquiries cast some doubt on the miracles and magical feats associated with the religious personages mentioned in sacred texts, causing unhappiness and anger in some.

Dispassionate scholars, even with great reverence for the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have explored the genesis of these marvelous works which strike them as impressive poetic creations of the human spirit. But the upholders of orthodoxy find such stances impertinent, perhaps even disrespectful. Some of them fear, not without reason, that the knowledge unraveled by scholarship might shake the stability of ancient icons and practices. There is therefore a derision on the part of traditionalists for no-nonsense cold-blooded scholars whose concern is for solid facts more than for soothing feelings.

As I see it, this is a cultural manifestation of the perennial conflict between the head and the heart. All through human history, in practically every society touched by civilization, the behavior and beliefs of traditionalists have been challenged by inquiring minds. This has resulted in new insights and understanding about the past for an elite minority. But they tend to cause pain and shock, even discomfort, to a great many people. The conquests of the mind in religious matters can upset the joyful heart. An impeccable proof to the effect that no almighty God lovingly holds His protective hand over our heads when we go to sleep could result in restless and worrisome insomnia in some.

Whether one should accept the evidence of carefully gathered data and the logic of arguments, or respond to the call of a deeper faith that endows us with peace and spiritual ecstasy is the dilemma that we sometimes face. Some make a decision, and claim their preference to be the right one. There is perhaps no right or wrong choice in this matter, if only because one is as human as the other, and both have contextual significance..

This dichotomy an illustration of what is called the principle of complementarity:  reality is recognized as consisting of apparently contradictory, but in fact mutually complementing, features. Niels Bohr used to say that there are two kinds of truths, small and great ones. A small truth is one whose contrary is false. That milk is white is a small truth, because to say that milk is black is clearly wrong. But a great truth is one whose contrary is no less true. To say there religions have done much good is as true a statement as that religions have done much harm. That the electron is a particle as that it is a wave.

As long as we are experiencing one side of a coin, we cannot perceive the other. But it would be simplistic, if not a grave error, to imagine that the coin has only one side. For the analytical scholar to maintain that the spiritual dimension of the Ramayana is without significance would be as partial a vision as the claim of the religious devotee who doesn’t realize that bhajans and mûrties have evolved over the ages in human culture, and are meaningful modes towards a greater goal, rather than reflections of objective truths.

The charm of Aesop’s Fables lies, not in the conversations of animals but  in the morals they spell out. I drink deep of the spiritual fountain of our epics because I was brought up in the tradition. Yet, I look into those works as creations of inspired poets. However, I am well aware that scholarly perspectives are not the only or even the best mode of approaching sacred works. All I can say is that I have been  enriched by them.

 

12. On the Relevance of Remembering our Heritage

Many in the modern world, recognizing the superstitious elements in religious frameworks, question the need for religious traditions. They wonder how people, informed by the knowledge and worldviews of science, still cling on to ancient pictures, taking legends and hagiography seriously, and regarding works like the Vedas and the Bible as holy books. They wonder why otherwise intelligent people recite the psalms and sacred chants. To vast numbers of people there are perfectly legitimate questions. 

It seems to me that individuals can lead sane lives in a world of science, technology, and modern medicine, without religious rites or rituals, or knowledge of one's history or culture. Indeed, ancestral wisdom is seldom helpful in solving our current problems. I see nothing morally objectionable in this.

However, while this is possible for individuals, the matter is different for a cultures. In so far as we are cultural beings, that is to say, bound together in community through meaningful practices and interactions, we can’t afford to erase the past from our collective psyche. There arise occasions in the life of a people, as of individuals, when we need to rejoice in the triumph of a community, mourn a loss to a nation, celebrate a memorable event, or confront a collective crisis. In moments like these, culture and history and bonds of a shared past become very valuable, if not necessarily absolutely essential.

Then again, in the case Hindus (as with some other groups), our ancestors had suffered  subjugation by aliens; they have been exploited and oppressed; and our culture has suffered marginalization, ridicule, and distortion by ill-wishers. In such contexts, it is a relief and a necessity to affirm one's robust past and culture, for no people can afford to be regarded as having been always a loser in the conflicts and foul-plays of history. There is no need for Hindus to create an imaginary heritage rich and worthy of respect: By any objective measure, Indic culture has been colorful and creative in art and music and joyous festivities, productive and prolific in poetry and philosophy and literature. It would be unfortunate if one were to forget the weighty legacy of our past. Every people would do well to remember their heritage, not in vainglory, but with intelligence and sensitivity.

These then are some reasons why people must remain culturally connected to their history. One doesn’t have to preserve untenable beliefs to sing beautiful hymns. One doesn’t have to show that modern physics is implicit in ancient utterances to admire in them penetrating insights into the spiritual dimension of Man and meaningful commentaries on the human condition. One doesn’t have to defend anachronistic social practices, but one has to eradicate them with historical understanding and sensitivity.

It is important, however, not to let our lives and outlook be overburdened by history and heritage. One must guard against becoming obsessed with past glories, or flaunting it as the best in the world, no matter how great, or deluding oneself that it was never without a blemish. The reason for remembering is not to proclaim to others how grand our culture or religion is compared to what others may have, but for deriving for ourselves the aesthetic, spiritual, and cultural fulfillment it can provide to those who come to know about aspects of it in any serious way.

To ignore or denigrate one’s cultural roots is like flinging family albums into the fire. Remembering a culture’s past is also like periodic housecleaning. We clear the  clutter and the cobwebs accumulated over time, discard irrelevant trinkets, and hold on only to precious possessions. Erasing heritage and history would be like waking up one morning, having forgotten the events, friends and kin of one's life: a sad psychological disaster.

 

13. Conception and consciousness

From the merger of a microscopic sperm and egg in the darkness of the fallopian tube arises an entity that gradually acquires self-awareness and an identity all its own. This embodied consciousness reflects and rejoices, creates and communicates, and engages in countless activities for a brief time-span. Then, after a final breath, its non-physical attributes vanish from the tangible world. No thinking mind can remain unimpressed by this remarkable phenomenon. If anything is a mystery, human consciousness is.

Each one of us carries within a totality that is more than the sum of our body's material substrate. Not so long ago, many of the atoms and molecules that make up our anatomy at this hour were not part of us. Millions of microorganisms thrive and perish in our saliva and alimentary canal. With all that, there is a subtle self that has been illumining every one of us, something that etches the identity of a separate existence within a hugely interconnected whole. This self has been with us since the first utterance of I and me, and it will be part of us until the dusk and dimness of life when, gradually or suddenly, our individual memories will falter and fade away for good.

We cannot deny the biochemical basis in the persistence of personhood. Some day, silicon configurations in plastic casings may acquire feelings and emotions, mimicking the heaves and exhilarations of the human heart. Computers create music today; they may be enjoying it tomorrow, and may be reflecting on life and death the day after. But this is not sufficient proof that there is or is not anything beyond matter and energy in space and time. This metaphysical Gödel’s theorem is at the root of much controversy.

From the perspective of science, nature appears to be essentially a tangible manifestation of matter and energy. However, the laws of nature, which organize and sustain it, cannot be located here or there or anywhere. They pervade the span of spread-out space and ceaseless time. One way of considering the Hindu perspective is that consciousness is implicit in these laws, an intangible principle that breathes order in the universe, and life into inert matter.

The Copernican revolution displaced our earth from the center of the universe. Science has been enormously successful in exploring the entire physical span of the universe from the far-from-visible microcosm to faint and farthermost specks in the vast expanse. And science may be right in regarding consciousness as just another among the countless occurrences in the stretch of time since the first creative bang.

But we will be missing the point if we don't see the role of consciousness in the unfolding of cosmic history. Science has displaced our habitat from center stage, but not dethroned human consciousness from the center of the perceived world. Like invisible air and earth-binding gravity, we take consciousness for granted because it is with us all the time. Consciousness deserves more than passing mention in any serious commentary on the universe, for it is consciousness that has lit up the universe with beauty and color, and infused it with meaning and understanding. Until the last decades of the twentieth century, science did not inquire about the consciousness.

Four centuries of modern science have thrown much light on the physical basis of this uncommon wonder, which may have parallels in other pockets in a universe studded with billions of stars and planetary systems. Some day we may explain consciousness in terms of neurons, microtubules, or other matter-based principles. But, as of now, consciousness continues to be a fantastic anomaly in the mindless morass of mass-energy cluttering the cosmos.

 

14. Consciousness in religious frameworks

The conscious human is the center of all religions. Our distant ancestors recognized more than we do that there would no universe to observe or contemplate upon if we were but brutes, which eat, procreate and perish periodically. So religions have reflected on consciousness in different ways. On this issue, as on others, even if we don’t subscribe to all that the ancients said, we may pay homage to the thinkers who pondered these matters for they led the way to thoughtful appreciation of human existence.

In (at least one stream of) the Judaic tradition, the calendar is reckoned as having started in 3761 B.C.E. when consciousness was breathed into Adam and Eve. This reckoning is attributed to This reckoning is sometimes attributed to José Ben Halaphta of the second century C.E. who is said to have arrived at the year by adding up "the ages of various patriarchs, kings, and historical periods listed in the genealogies and histories of the Bible." There is also a belief that after some two and a half centuries from now, humanity will be raised to a state of a new consciousness.

In the Christian tradition, consciousness is taken as an agency of God and the Holy Spirit. It is an awareness of the world, an essential element of the human condition that is crucial to an understanding of the difference between good and evil. There are no metaphysical classification of consciousness here, or any probing into its ultimate nature. God has endowed us with consciousness, which is a unique gift, and it is our responsibility to make the best of it, i.e. exercise the will that is associated with consciousness in fruitful and worthy ways.

Buddhist thinkers recognized consciousness at various levels and contexts. At one level,  we are conscious of material things and to sensuality. Next there is consciousness directed to external forms. The third is concerned with the formless sphere. This involves ideas and values, and is not concerned with matters of material or visual interest. The fourth kind of consciousness is related to transcendental matters. In other words, thought and consciousness were identified in some of these perspectives, perhaps significantly so, for it is the thoughtful being that is also self-aware, or it is perhaps the conscious being that engages in thought. Buddhist thinkers also classified subjective consciousness into four classes, namely: consciousness which is wholesome and consciousness which is unwholesome in its effects; consciousness which is a consequence of past actions; and consciousness which is totally ineffective.

We note from all of this that the more one reflects on these matters, the more complicated and rich the field becomes. Such categorizations lead to an understanding of one's own thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. From that understanding may come a more balanced and fulfilled life.

Islamic theologians talk about levels of consciousness (fana, baqa, and ma-rarifa) depending upon the extent to which we become one with the divine. In the last stage one is supposed to have become part of the consciousness of Divinity. However, only believers can attain these stages. Here, as in the Hindu world, consciousness is described in terms of one’s awareness of transcendental reality.

Thus, the recognition of the significance, perhaps even the uniqueness, of consciousness in a cold and careless world is at the basis of all major religions. And this is quite contrary to what is assumed in the modern scientific framework in which consciousness is essentially an interesting and emergent byproduct of complex matter.

 

15. Consciousness in the Hindu vision: Tat tvam asi

In ages past, sage-poets in India probed into the roots of consciousness, and they formulated some fascinating views on the subject. Their startling conclusion was that human consciousness is a pale echo of something far more magnificent. Expressed through the aphorism, tat tvam asi: Thou art That, it says that every conscious entity is a spark from an underlying effulgence, and can flash a radiance as its source alone can.

The capacity for awareness and experience, for logical analysis and joyful interaction is an intangible component of Homo sapience. This is the essence of what one calls the human spirit. Just as there is more to a flower than soil and tree-branch, so in the Hindu view, the spirit is more than neural network, heartbeat and vital breath, though these are what create and sustain it here below.

Hindu thinkers reasoned that if there is splendor in the perceived world and pattern in its functioning, and if it can all result in the grand experiences of life and thought, then even prior to the advent of humans, there must have been an experiencing principle of a vastly superior order. This Cosmic Experiencer (Brahman) spans the range in space and time.  Just as the expanse of water in the seas is scattered on land in ponds and lakes and cups and bottles, all-pervading Brahman finds expression in countless life forms. We are miniature lights from that universal brilliance. We have emanated from that primordial splendor, like photons from a glorious galactic core, destined for terrestrial experience for a brief span on the eternal time line, only to re-merge with that from which we sprang.

Is this is really so, is it a scientific hypothesis, or just poetic imagery? But if it is only poetry, let us remember that poetry and prayer are for the human spirit what the telescope and the microscope are for human eyes. Lenses enable us to discern entities beyond our normal sight, and profound poetry is a response of the human mind or spirit to that which is not fathomed through logic and reason. Poetry brings home to us, indeed it forces us to reckon, the world of experience, not in terms of sense data and charts and proofs, but in subtle and holistic ways. It reveals the meaning and majesty in the universe that lie in a realm beyond the plane of rigid rationality. Poetry is mystic experience verbalized.

Thus, Hindu spiritual vision paints individual consciousness on a cosmic canvass. It recognizes the transience of us all as separate entities, yet incorporates us into the infinity that encompasses us. It does not rule out the possibility of other manifestations of Brahman, sublime and subtle, carbon or silicon-based, elsewhere amidst the stellar billions. It recognizes the role of matter, and the limits of the mind, but sees subtle awareness at the core of it all. It does not speak of rewards and punishments in anthropocentric terms, nor of a He-God communicating in local languages. Yet, it regards the religious expressions of humanity as echoes of a Universal Spirit, even as volcanic outbursts reveal submerged forces of far greater magnitude. 

    Going beyond the tenets of mechanistic-materialist science, one may find something elevating in regarding every conscious being as a spark from a Cosmic Whole. I have presented a vision from the Hindu world, not as a Truth that I call upon others to accept, but as an uplifting thought  to regard ourselves as part of that from which the universe sprang. In this grand scheme, every fellow human becomes yet another spark from the same sublime source. When such a worldview is internalized, it can inspire an outpouring of caring and compassion, of love and respect! From this perspective, as our materials bodies are stardust, our spiritual dimension is cosmic dust.

 

16. Thoughts of Death: For the theist and the atheist

Nothing that is born lives on for ever. Life, as someone quipped, is a terminal disease: sooner or later we all must cease in our current bodies and minds. Death is a curious puzzle in one’s youthful days, and the recognition of an impending event in one’s graying phase. Different people react to the thought of death in different ways.

For the theist, irrespective one’s religion, there is the hope of a more glorious life in the hereafter. Even with threat of punishment by a severe God for sins slight and serious, there is a feeling that with repentance and after payment of dues, one will enter a state of eternal peace in the region of an all-merciful Almighty. Even when there is the requirement of revisiting earth to reap the consequences of conscious actions, the cycle will end sooner or later, and ultimate liberation with merger with the Universal Spirit is a cheerful and uplifting possibility.

When a near and dear one breathes no more, there is the conviction in the heart of the believer that he or she is safe and secure in a world beyond, away from the rough and tumble of this arduous life with its fears and fury, residing with the certainty of our own eventual arrival there. What can be more promising than the thought that after all is said and done, there will be a joyous eternity in the realm and reflection of the Creator!

Thus the person who lives in faith and conforms to the norms of ethics has little to fear about death, for it escorts one to a place non-existent for doubters. Contrary to what some atheists say, death is not, or shouldn’t be, ugly or intimidating to religious people.

However, it is important for the theist to know that atheists aren’t disturbed by the thought that in due course they will be turned to dust or ash, pulverized beyond recognition, lingering perhaps in the fading memory of some who too will some day with the atoms of  mindless lumps in mud and slime. The awakened atheist rejoices in life while it lasts in love and laughter, and feels that all of life’s splendor is intense and exhausted in lived moments, focused only here below in this insignificant niche in the cosmic stretch. Life is like reading a fascinating novel without wanting the narrative never to have an end, or sipping a fine glass of Bordeaux  without craving for the glass to be an endless fount. Be born, be well for a while, then be gone for good, is the commandment of blind biology.

To the atheist, death is simply the inevitable cessation of the vital functions of a living entity. Sure, it is a threatening idea to some, it is intense pain for the loving ones who are left behind, and a mystery to some thoughtful people. Even atheists sometimes toy with a what-if-question in this context, for it is not easy for everyone to imagine that the thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences accumulated and encapsulated in a brain and body for years vanish into void with an  interruption of oxygen-intake. It is as if when the covers of a book are closed, all its contents are erased in a jiffy.

Since very ancient times, people have wondered and argued about death and the beyond. Even with all the progress in science, wonderment about death persists at the philosophical level, and firm convictions about it persist at doctrinal levels. These are likely to continue for as along as we shed tears, eulogize, write epitaphs, and wish or pray for the peace of the departed.

One may react to the thought of death meaningfully whether one is a believer or not. However, what matters now is not if we will live disembodied for evermore, or if we will become no more than unrecognizable bits scattered on earth’s mantle, but how we  spread joy, alleviate suffering, and serve others while we are alive and kicking.. In this context, atheists and theists of goodwill can join hands and work together as fleeting earthlings  for the good of all.

 

17. Places of worship

  The Gods of Greece resided on Mount Olympus, which Homer described thus: "Olympus, abode of the gods, that stand fast for ever. Neither is it shaken by winds nor wet with rain, nor does snow fall upon it, and the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovers a radiant whiteness." This reminds us of the Himalayan peak where Shiva and Parvati of Hindu lore reside. The gods could well be up above in the vast expanse of extra-terrestrial space, beyond the starry firmament. The ancient vision was that the Gods resided way too far for ordinary humans to climb and reach.

Because they are so distant every religion constructed halls and altars where the Divine might come to reside, where men and women can gather to pay homage to the Almighty. Temples were built for Minerva and Jupiter on the hills of Rome. The grand edifices built for them have crumbled down for archeological probes or they have been renovated to attract tourists. All man-made gods have a history.

In ancient India there were devâlayas (Houses of Gods) for the Sun-God Sûrya and the Sky-God Indra, but now we have mandirs and kôvils consecrated to Rama and Krishna, Shiva, Kali and Murugan.

In the Judaic tradition, the place of worship was also a place where people went together (synagogé). It was in the synagogue that religious teachings were proclaimed to the faithful: i.e. the synagogue also served as a kind of public school for religious studies. The Jewish scholar Arthur Herzberg explains that "The central function of the synagogue was to cultivate a value perhaps more important that prayer to Jewish faith, the study of the Torah.” On Sabbath, people gathered in the synagogue to hear a reading of a passage from the Torah and to gain understanding of its interpretation. To this day, this is enshrined in the central act of public worship in Judaism on every major occasion.

In the Christian world assemblies for common worship services became churches. When Paul and Peter initiated such groups, perhaps they did not realize that some day churches would spread to every corner of the world, just as, when the first temples were erected in India no one foresaw a day when there would be temples in Malaysia and Madagascar, in London and Pittsburgh.

Periodic calls to prayer through a hearty proclamation that God is great is an important feature in the worship centers of the Islamic world. Here the traditional mode is to prostrate as a gesture of surrender to the Almighty: which is why the place is called a masjid, which literally means a place for prostration. Known as mosque in English, it has a wall without doors with a niche called mihrab  which points to the direction (qilba) of Maccah where the Prophet had established the very  first mosque of the tradition. Then there are the stûpas and the  multi-layered pagodas of Buddhism. To these may also be attached residence halls for the monks of the tradition. The architectural elements of the building are also regarded as worthy of reverence. Though Buddha himself was indifferent to questions about God's existence, he has been symbolically deified in the tradition. Therefore his images are revered and worshiped in Buddhist temples. The gurudwara (Doorway to the Master) is the Sikh place of worship where the faith’s scripture (Guru Granth Sahib) is all that is worshiped in reverence, and the One God is invoked as waheguru.

Places of worship are the sanctified centers where one expresses gratitude to that which caused the world to be. here, the human spirit invokes with humility the Unfathomable Mystery that has actualized this world. This is a lofty goal of religions.

 

 

18. Purpose and Goal

Life is a series of experiences and activities. The experiences come to us, and we initiate the activities. Activities are of two kinds: Those to whose consequences we are indifferent, and those we perform with definite consequences in mind. The former may be called purposeless actions, and the latter, purposeful or goal-directed.

In this context, questions like the following sometimes arise: What is the goal or life? Is there a purpose to the universe? Answers have ranged from: The goal of life is to enjoy it to the full, to achieving self-realization; and from: The purpose of the world is nothing at all to the purpose is for God to manifest Himself fully.

Here, it is useful to make a distinction between goal and purpose. A goal is a point or state towards which the activities of an individual or a system seem to tend. Purpose, on the other hand, is the intrinsic reason why a system functions to reach a goal. A careful external observer may be able to infer the goal of a system from its behavior.  But an outsider cannot fathom the purpose for sure. As Shakespeare's Cicero said:

... Men may construe things after their fashion,

Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

Biological entities are often governed by goal-directed behavior. But they may not be always aware of why they seek the goal. The goal of a heliotrope is to receive as much sunlight as it can. The reason why it does so is not within the plant, but in the realm of biological evolution. Even purely physical systems often have a goal. For instance, the goal of many mechanical systems is to attain a state of minimum potential energy, which is why unsupported objects fall to the ground where the potential energy is least. Systems with many constituents strive to reach a state of maximum entropy. When light travels from point to point, its goal is to follow the path of least action (Fermat’s principle). Why these happen is not clear. We simply say that they are the laws of nature.

From this perspective, two insights emerge. First, purpose implies conscious behavior, whereas goal directed behavior need not be so. Secondly, only the entity which acts can know what the purpose, if any, is. This is evident in practically all human contexts. We may know that a person striving to achieve something has a definite goal.  But only he or she can know why the striving is there. The goal of a student is to pass the course creditably. Her purpose may be anything from a desire to get a degree to satisfying parental pressure. When a philanthropist gives generously, the goal of the action is to support an undertaking. But he or she alone knows the real purpose behind the munificence. It could be commitment to the cause, it could be to gain fame, it could be to redeem a feeling of guilt, or whatever.

Scientists tend to think that there is really no purpose to the universe. The reason for this is not philosophical, but observation-based. In the systematic study of natural phenomena, it is difficult to detect any purpose in the world, not only in the countless organisms on our planet, but in the continued existence during eons of routinely shining and dying stars, let alone in aimlessly wandering comets and galaxies. This apparent absence of any purpose in a vast and wondrous universe impresses some naturalists as a pointless universe. This may well be so, but only the universe can know what the purpose of the universe may be, if there is one. Then again, to imagine the universe to have a purpose, one must grant consciousness to it, which current science is unwilling or unable to do. Thus, in principle, the question of purpose in the universe can never be resolved.

 

19. The religious roots of ethics

Human life is directed not only by worldviews, but also by values. Science provides worldviews based on observation and analysis. It functions on the basis of a value system, which includes disinterested quest, commitment to truth, honesty in reporting of results, and the like. But science does not prescribe rules in interpersonal interactions which are an important part of societal ethics.

Traditionally, the principles of ethics were formulated by  religions and inculcated  by elders in a community. Thus, in the Judaic tradition, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Though one may doubt the literal veracity of God handing over a do-don’t list to an individual, tradition records the date on which this occurred as the third day of a Hebrew month (Sivan).  The Judaic world celebrates this event as Shavuot: the season of the giving of law. The commandments instill the values of honoring parents, of remembering God at least once a week, of not stealing or killing, and the like. One is asked not to have any other God but the one who gave the commandments: perhaps what was demanded was loyalty to the enunciated principles.

Christians derive their moral inspiration from the Biblical life of Jesus, in particular, from the Sermon on the Mount. Of this, St. Augustine wrote: "If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life…. The sermon is brought to a close in such a way that it is clear there are in it all the precepts which go to mould life.”

Values in the Hindu world are enunciated in various sacred texts. For example, the Bhagavad Gita recommends the following essential virtues to be cultivated: "Fearlessness, purity of mind, determination in pursuit of knowledge and austerities, charity, self-control, and performing prescribed rituals, recitation of the Vedas, meditation, rectitude; non-violence, truthfulness, being without anger, self-sacrifice, peace of mind; not criticizing, compassion towards beings, non-coveting; gentleness, modesty, steadfastness; courage, forgiving, fortitude, purity, freedom from malice and haughtiness." The Dharmashastras prescribe behavioral norms and laws.

In the Islamic world, the moral and legal framework is inspired by what is known as the Sharia which is derived from the Holy Qur'an where it says: "…We gave you the Sharia in religion. Follow it, and do not follow the lust of those who do not know." Traditional Muslim world regards the Sharia as the will of God, which has been described as "the totality of religious, political, social, domestic, and private life."

Like the Dharmashastras of the Hindu world (which are no longer in vogue in India), the Sharia (which is practiced to varying degrees in various Islamic nations) spells out not only what one must do, but also punishments for specific derelictions. It includes the so-called Hadd-offences, mentioned in the Qur’an, which must be dealt with medieval severity, such as lashes on the back, severing of hands, and stoning to death. There are complex and varied commentaries on it, and also different schools of Sharia.

Thanks largely to world-wide communication systems, the recognition of barbarities inherent in some traditional systems, as also a growing global trans-religious ethical system, modernists in all traditions are trying to re-interpret, modify, and even discard some of the injunctions in traditional religious frameworks which strike us as anachronistic, unconscionable and unacceptable in our present age. In the process, however, some socially beneficial traditional values are also being lost.

 

20. Ethics: secular perspectives

Confucius spoke with gentleness on the basic guidelines for being fully human. We read in his Analects about benevolence, charity, love, right conduct, duty towards others, selflessness, loyalty, reciprocity, honoring parents, and the like: simple, yet sophisticated virtues with no mumble-jumble about God or after-life or heaven. While stressing self-control, he did not recommend self-denial.

In the seventeenth century, while Gentiles and Grotius argued that the notion of the law of nature  "in the juridical sense had come to be seen as that part of the divine law which issues from the essential nature of man, who is distinguished from animals by an appetite for tranquil association with his fellows and by his tendency to act on universal principles,” Thomas Hobbes speculated that even the highest moral behavior was ultimately instigated by selfish motives and colored by unhealthy passions. In Hobbes’ view, even gratitude was never pure, but tainted by a secret hostility toward the giver.

Gradually, like other long-held prerogatives of religions, ethics too began to be usurped by the rush of rationality and science. With knowledge of the mores of various cultures and study of the behavior of different species, as also with an understanding of the role of genes in biology, scientists have been analyzing the source and significance of ethical principles. Fields like anthropology, biology, and evolutionary psychology have brought down the sources of morality from scriptural pedestals to survival needs, cultural forces, and genetic programming.

Many do's and don'ts are explained in terms of what is conducive to societal survival and healthy species-propagation. Scientifically inclined thinkers are persuaded that the impetus for ethics may often be traced to DNA; i.e. that moral acts are emergent manifestations of molecular matter. Researchers into the behavior of animals have been revealing how non-humans sometimes act very much like us in morally sound ways. Frans De Waal's work shows that lowly animals can be mutually friendly, caring, and cooperative.  This is in consonance with the ideas on morality developed by Michael Cavanaugh who has discussed the thesis that "inside each of us, as a function of our muscular and nervous and hormonal systems, is a propulsion toward various kinds of actions. We share that propulsion with animals." Richard Dawkins developed the idea of the selfish gene, which may be regarded as the twentieth century elaboration of Hobbes's thesis by which altruism is no more than camouflaged self-serving scheme. In this view, whether it is bees that kill themselves to protect the hive, or jihadists who blow themselves up to protect their cause and creed, or Mother Teresa who dedicated herself to serve the abandoned, ultimately it is all genes, which are at work to propagate themselves. Dawkins argues that we are unique only in that we can refuse to succumb to the selfish gene. Others, mostly from religious perspectives, insist that there is more to kindness, compassion, caring and love than gene-instigated neuron firing.

A look into the history of ideas generates little hope that the question will be settled by debate or laboratory revelations. This is the kind of issue that cannot be resolved by reason, argumentation, measuring device and mathematics.

When subjected to explanation, morality tends to lose its potency as an imperative for action. One can practice much virtue without postulating genetic coding at the root of kindness or compassion.  The Samaritan who feeds a hungry stranger accomplishes much of value even if she has no inkling of DNA and RNA, and hasn't read erudite philosophers who write books on what makes us moral beings.

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21. Three kinds of laws

From the most ancient times human beings have regulated life and society by ad­hering to certain well-regulated patterns of conduct.  This has been achieved by the en­actment of laws which, as a member of a society, one agrees to obey.  Such human-made or statutory laws govern all civilized societies. Statutory laws preceded the recognition of laws of nature.  This is one reason why the term law was introduced to describe ordered behavior in the physical world.  It was reasoned that Nature is also governed by strict laws formulated by its Creator.

Statutory laws prescribe constraints on members of a society.  These are meant to safeguard the interests of all peo­ple, rather than to promote those of a few.  Obedience to such laws implies that everyone sacrifices some personal freedom; and there is a check on inconsiderate use of one person’s freedom that affects others negatively.

Statutory laws can be broken, i.e. one can violate these laws.  Such violations are, of course, subject to appropriate penalties in a society.  In other words, the breaking of a human-made law may result in unpleasant consequences for the law-breaker.  But a law of nature can­not be broken, even in principle.  Violations of statutory laws are crimes or felonies.  Violations of laws of nature are regarded by some as miracle.  Miracles are not allowed in science.

Between statutory and natural laws  are certain kinds of laws whose status has been the subject of much controversy.  These are the so-called moral laws.  They arise from a unique characteristic of humans in an evolved state.  Human beings experience what is called a conscience: which is an intangible pointer that seems to indicate the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong action.  External and preached principles of good and bad behavior may be questioned or discarded, but the inner impulses for right action, and the deeper personal feelings of guilt are often inescapable. 

But it is also true that inner ethical directives don't always point in the same direction in all individuals or in peoples of different cultures.  Anthropologists and psychologists trace the origins of some of our inner ethical principles to inculcation of value systems from infancy, by mother, father, friend, preceptor, and cultural envi­ronment. 

And yet, one may argue that human beings, even with completely different cul­tural upbringings, do have certain common criteria of right and wrong conduct.  Consider the following extreme cases: The cruel torture of a wounded, invalid, blind four year old child who is gasping for breath would be regarded as a wrong act by normal human beings in any society.  Similarly, practically any normal human being will consider it a preferable (good) gesture to offer some water to a sick, old woman dying of thirst rather than take away whatever water may be within her reach. 

Whether or not moral laws have the same standing as physical laws, they resemble statutory laws in one important way: They can be violated.  Those who are inclined to give objective validity to moral laws invoke a new idea in the context of this possibility.  They maintain that there ope­rate in the universe (by which they mean in this context the world of humans) certain inescapable laws of action and consequences governing our behavior.  Invariably and inevitably, our good and bad actions will be rewarded or punished sooner or later.  This is implied in the law of karma in the Hindu worldview and in “Whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” of the New Testament. This prompted Immanuel Kant to declare: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe …: the starry heavens above, and the moral law within."

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22. Morality, Religion, and War

A cardinal principle in most religions is respect for human life. Spokespersons for all religions proclaim that their religion regards human life as sacred. How could harm and hurt, maiming and killing fellow humans be part of any religious teaching?

And yet, few religions (or secular governments) regard war as an instrument of killing. This may seem ironic at first blush, but the irony is resolved through the notion of just war. A just war is one whose initiation or conduct is justified (if not always justifiable on impartial standards) on moral and/or practical grounds.

In so far was far as wars lead to destruction and to the death of innocent people, they are vicious, inhuman, and abhorrent. Ironically, Karl Marx notwithstanding, not all wars in history were instigated by economic greed alone. Some were prompted by the urge to spread one’s own version of Truth, other’s to right the wrongs one imagines elsewhere, yet others to establish what one regards as one’s own version of what is good for the world, and some even to make aliens believe in the right kind of God.

Thus, for example, if an alien horde occupies one’s country, or desecrates one’s culture, a battle to throw it out would be regarded as just. Or again, if a nation inflicts harm and subjugates another nation (or sometimes even a helpless section of its own people), unleashing a war against such a government is sometimes regarded as just.

Waging war for establishing moral rectitude is grandly illustrated in the Kurukshetra war of the Mahabharata where Lord Krishna preaches to his disciple Arjuna that he ought to take up arms against a sea of miscreants who had broken every principle of righteous behavior (dharma). As Krishna urged Arjuna to wage war against those who had usurped his family’s land, the God of the Old Testament inspired war against the Canaanites because they were occupying the land that God had given to the Jews. 

Another moral justification for killing, through war or otherwise, is when one refuses to accept the God of one’s tradition. The injunction to kill in the name of one’s faith, and for its propagation all over the world, is nowhere more explicitly an emphatically stated than in the Holy Book of a great religion: “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you (9:123).” “When you meet the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly (47.3).”

The Sikh Guru Gobind Singh said: When all efforts to restore peace prove useless and no words avail, lawful is the flash of steel; it is right to draw the sword.’ This reminds us of what Krishna had done in the Mahabharata, and of the line in the Torah: "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace."

Perhaps the greatest insight on war is to be found in the Dhammapada of Buddhism: “Whosoever were to conquer in battle a thousand times thousand men, and another were to conquer one, that is, oneself, he indeed is the greatest victor in battle.” This, if course, refers to wars caused by raw greed and hunger for power over other peoples, for it is only in such wars that one speaks of conquest.

It is sad and shameful that wars are painful blots on human history, and are part of religious traditions which have sanctioned, sometimes even instigated war in one context or another. But then, cynical realists have quipped that a pacifist is one who has never been mugged. Judged by the sufferings inflicted, all wars are evil. Judged by long-range impacts, there have been good as well as bad wars. Only when our resources are limitless, all economic and social injustices are erased, and religions understand that there are multiple paths to spiritual fulfillment, will the seeds of wars be completely eradicated.

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23. SPIRITUALITY: RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVE

Since the dawn of self-awareness, human beings have soared beyond the biological urgencies of food and procreation, shelter and security, and have created art and poetry, music and philosophy. They have wondered about the world and the reason for existence. These are expressions of what we call the human spirit.

Religion is an important manifestation of this spiritual potential of Homo sapiens. It can enable us to experience the world apart from the natural needs of hunger and thirst. It can elevate us to levels that transcend our material concerns. Religions are like lofty peaks rising high above the surrounding plains of our physical being, merging, as it were, into the nebulous domain of heaven itself, beckoning the human spirit with their enticing grandeur. Some say religious visions are as insubstantial as mirages, others that they lead us to rarefied realms of reality.

Human beings have always sought to get a glimpse of such realms, to connect ever so slightly with the ethereal beyond of which we may be pale reflections. The spiritual quest is the expression of the deepest urge to connect with the Whole. In Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel, the tip of Adam's finger barely touches that of God, as if created Man is moving away from the Creator. It could also be interpreted as the human spirit trying to get in touch with  the divine.

Religious traditions prescribe modes to affirm one's spirituality: a simple prayer in a kneeling posture of humility in the Christian world; in the Islamic world, the heart-felt proclamation that Allah is great; chanting from the Talmud in the Jewish world; ecstatic singing of Krishna's name in the Vaishnava world; or just silent meditation in serenity of dawn. All these are efforts to confirm our spirituality, they are outlets for our instinctive yearning to connect with the Unfathomable.

To the religious aspirant, spirituality is linked to a profound experience that enriches life by revealing features of the tangible  world that are not as obvious when one is in the rough and tumble of life, and tossed by the passions of anger and frustrations and cravings for creature-comfort. The person of faith, in ritual or worship, while reciting a prayer, singing a psalm, or invoking a mantra, experiences a communion that, like the philosopher's stone of alchemy, transforms the lead and copper of animal existence into the silver and gold of divine delight. Saints, sadhus, and Sufis in every tradition have moved beyond the prayers of the day and season, and merged with the Mystery. These are the mystics venerated in religious traditions, for in them one sees spirituality attain its pinnacle. The rest of us are like amateur climbers who walk the carved out tracks to reach a modest plateau, or  play in the plains, the saints are like arduous Alpinists who have reached Everest. 

From the religious perspective, spirituality refers to an aspect of the world that is beyond the material-energetic, a level too subtle for scientific probes. It also refers to an innate capacity in us which enables us to become aware of the transcendent through a variety of means which are recommended by the spiritual disciplines of the world. In order to utilize this capacity, one often needs to embrace a religious mode, be initiated into some religious practice, and undertake the quest with serious intention. In other words, from the perspective of religion, spirituality is an attribute of the human condition. Like rationality, it is the capacity to raise our awareness to a non-material plane of reality. Our spiritual dimension can also provoke us to love, kindness, caring, compassion, truth and beauty.

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24. SPIRITUALITY: SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVES

For more than a century after its emergence, Galilean-Newtonian science was generally indifferent to spiritual matters. It tended to regard spiritual experiences either as religiously significant and deserving of respect, or as simply irrelevant, if not delusional and requiring psychological attention. By the close of the nineteenth century, spiritualism which tried to communicate with departed spirits, became a fad in the West, and diverted attention from genuine religious spirituality. It attracted some eminent scientists, and instigated the founding of the Society for Psychic Research. However, enthusiasm for this slowly fizzled out, and physicists returned to their customary indifference to spiritual matters.

With the propagation and popularity of LSD and other chemical inducements to being spaced out in the second half of the twentieth century, spiritual experiences came to be studied systematically, but not in the traditional religious framework. Experiences, which seemed to open the "doors of perception", like yoga and meditation in Hindu spiritual quests, and the effects of smoking of certain leaves, were explored experimentally.

From traditional religious perspectives, spiritual experiences take us to levels of consciousness which enable an awareness of higher levels of reality. The scientific interpretation suggests that drugs, whether synthesized in a laboratory or in a plant, or in the brain via yoga, alter cerebral chemistry, and lead to experiences described as spiritual. This view reduces Vedic hymns to poetic and imaginative creativity arising from imbibing hearty doses of soma juice, Moses’ godly encounter to some theotoxin growing in the wilderness, the voice of Gabriel that Mohammed heard as unusual manifestations of epileptic seizures, and extraordinary visions of Virgin Mary to unwitting ingestion of theogenic mushrooms.

In other words, in this framework spirituality degenerates into psychedelic hallucinations. Charismatic drug-gurus write books, address dissatisfied folks hungering for something beyond cheeseburger and coke, and offer instant ecstasy with a pinch of some potent powder, potion or perfume.

Recall that eighteenth century physics had the effect of reducing the beauty and grandeur of the celestial arc to Snell's law of refraction operating in water droplets in the atmosphere. Likewise, in the view of some, neuroscience is dismantling the spirit. Some regard this as an even greater intrusion into sanctity. Millennia of culture and civilization which have arisen from firm belief in a transcendent principle, frameworks whose saints and scriptures have been teaching us to relate to something beyond, are now traced to properties of complex molecules that disturb normal neuron firing and create weird images. All the poetry and potency of prayer is reduced to brain chemistry. Religious ecstasy is relegated to the hypothalamus and the frontal lobe, and traced to orgasmic bliss that was triggered somewhere along the evolutionary chain.

To the practitioner of faith this shouldn't matter, but it also detracts from the goal of the spiritual aspirant: which is not to figure out what body chemistry causes entanglement with the Whole, nor even to get an indescribable kick from feeling high or whatever, but to be meaningfully transformed by the spiritual quest. The religious approach to spirituality is like delighting in a gourmet meal; the scientific approach is like is like analyzing the starch and sugar in the dessert.

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25. ON MONODOXY

We interact with the world in different modes. One of these is through concepts and ideas. At a sophisticated level of this mode, we try to understand and interpret the world of in terms of certain broad categories. This approach is commendable as a goal, insightful in its formulations and fruitful in its results. But it can also lead to a mind-set which I call monodoxy: Single belief.  

By this term, I mean two things. Monodoxy regards a framework, mode, or system of ideas as the only acceptable orthodoxy (literally, right belief) such that those who hold differing views, and even adherents to one’s own system who suggest significant changes to it, are frowned upon or penalized severely.  Furthermore, the validity of its framework is taken so seriously that those who disagree are vilified, dismissed, or (when possible) actively oppressed.Thus, monodoxy is a deeply felt conviction that one possesses the right answers to all question, while others don't. Often monodoxy is also a reflection of the belief in one's own (or one's group's) intellectual and moral superiority vis-à-vis others.

Monodoxy is fairly universal. It has been present all through human history, and in all cultures. It is difficult to avoid it, especially in epistemological, religious, social, and political contexts where it is most prevalent, because it is necessary for the practice and furtherance of a system, and sometimes, even for its survival. There are different types of monodoxy:

(a) Methodological: A particular methodology for the correct interpretation of the world is taken to be the only valid one. In our own times, scientific methodology tends to be monodoxical. Mystics and religionists also operate in monodoxical modes.

(b) Criteria for Truth: In the view of some, the scientific criteria for validating or rejecting propositions tends to be monodoxical. The scientific community brushes off as unacceptable systems which spell out other criteria for truth, such as  experiential verifiability, emotional satisfaction, scriptural compatibility, etc.

(c) Transcendental: This is characteristic of most religions which claim that their particular visions of the divine (or God) are the only correct ones.

(d) Socio-economic: This is found in political ideologies. Each political party or philosophy, or economic school holds  that its own prescriptions for solving societal and national problems are the only right ones. Indeed, of all the causes for monodoxy, economic or political self-interests are perhaps the strongest.  Since it is a theoretical position, it is more common among people who think and reflect on issues than among business-people, and much less among the common folk, except when they follow their leaders.

There are two elements in Indian thought which may serve as antidotes to monodoxy. One is  in the Rig Veda where it says that truth is one and the learned call it in different ways. The other is in the Jaina doctrine to the effect that truth and reality can't be apprehended from just one perspective. Recall the story of:

    Six men of Hindustan much of them inclined

    Wanted to see an elephant though all of them were blind,

    That each at least by observation

    Might satisfy his mind.

Each blind man formed an idea of the elephant from his partial perspective. Though all of them were a little right, all of them were in fact wrong.

    Disclaimer: I don't regard my reflections on human behavior, attitudes, and institutions as the only right ones.

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26. THE FLIP SIDE OF MONODOXY: AGA

Many levelheaded thinkers in this day and age would agree that a certain degree of intellectual arrogance, if not bigotry and fanaticism, is associated with monodoxy. However, in one’s eagerness to avoid this, one may also let oneself slip into its flip side, which may be called Anything Goes Attitude (AGA). AGA arises from a number of factors some of which are the following:

First, there is the conviction that it is intrinsically impossible to affirm on purely logical grounds that one mode of looking at things is necessarily more valid than another. For example, if God created the world, who is to say if the Creator had two arms or a hundred? Over the ages, different cultures have developed different approaches to life and reality. It is naïve and ethnocentric to assume that what one's own culture has developed is the best. The growing power and dominance of science renders ineffective and helpless religious and other modes of describing or recognizing reality. This epistemological hegemony seems to be as unfair. A feeling of guilt on the part of some Western thinkers that their own civilization has behaved shabbily towards many other civilizations during the past few centuries also induces AGA.

If monodoxy is narrow in its outlook, is logically and morally untenable, and harmful in many contexts, AGA can become callous, hurtful, and downright silly in some others.

An enthusiasm for respecting every explanation of natural phenomena in every culture, past and present may not always be the most enlightened way. At an international conference I was attending a few years ago in South Africa, a speaker from Australia reported that some people in an island believed that their island had been created the dawn of time by a deity just for them. She went on to say that Westerners were now teaching in the schools there about plate tectonics and the formation of landmasses in mid-oceans, and were thus demolishing the traditional and sacred history of the islanders. This was, she said, Eurocentric arrogance for it had no respect for the belief system of other cultures.

I rather doubt that teaching people – whether Westerners or Southerners - about current scientific findings and worldviews is a display of arrogance. What is arrogant is to assume that only the Western mind can understand modern science. If we saw an ancient religious rite involving human sacrifice, would we be ethnocentrically haughty if we were to make an effort to have them modify the practice by substituting a symbolic vegetable in lieu of the human?

AGA can also have the effect of shaking faith in one's own cultural, religious, and philosophical framework, since nothing is taken as having any intrinsic or absolute merit. It can dissolve distinctions between science and superstition, between astronomy and astrology, between magic-mongering and medicine, between UFOlogy and SETI, etc. Some thinkers in the scientifically developing societies have been lulled by AGA into believing that medieval worldviews are as valid as modern scientific. When this is applied in the context of diseases, male superiority, and fear of eclipses, the results can be both ridiculous and devastating.

Monodoxy must be avoided sometimes, and also AGA. To hold on to absolutes on the moral plane on purely logical grounds is difficult, but if it is abandoned altogether, human society could degenerate to a savage free-for-all with no moorings or maturity. To accept every world picture as valid can land us in fantasies and superstitions.

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27. GLOBAL ETHIC

Many roots of ethical injunctions may be traced to religions traditions. When one contrasts these lofty formulations with the records of religious history,  one wonders if religions have had as much positive impact as one could have hoped. But then it is quite possible that we would have remained more wild and beastly without the religions. Who can tell! What we do know is that a great many guideposts for commendable conduct can be found in the teachings of religions.

With the rise of modern science came the emancipation of the mind from many misconceptions about the nature of the physical world and  life forms, as also views of our species that transcend culture. So began efforts to formulate frameworks for national and international behavior that would be more humanistic than doctrinal, more global than parochial. During the twentieth century, two world wars were followed by a Cold War, countless local conflicts, and mounting economic, social, and inter-religious problems: the human condition seemed to be fast deteriorating.

So, at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993, representatives from many groups made a joint "Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethic." The drafters of the declaration (Hans Küng was the first author) had to be sensitive to all faiths. Since not all religions are theistic, one had to avoid invoking God. Controversial topics like abortion and euthanasia were not even mentioned. No reference was made to prophets and scriptures, nor to  the slaughter of animals for religious festivals. Political tyranny and dictatorship could not be openly condemned since a number of participants came from nations where these were very much in vogue. The notion of human rights was already there in the U.N.

The global ethic declaration expresses noble sentiments: Everyone must be treated humanely; there must be non-violence and respect for life; one must work for a just economic order, for tolerance, truthfulness, equal rights, gender equality and partnership, etc. There was a call for consciousness transformation. The authors of the document expressed the conviction that "the new global order will be a better one only in a socially-beneficial and pluralist, partner-sharing and peace-fostering, nature-friendly and ecumenical globe." They committed themselves "to a common Global Ethic" and called upon "all women and men of goodwill to make this Declaration their own."

This was the first ethical document whose signatories come from every religion in the world. However, it is difficult to come up with new ethical criteria beyond the age-old principle of not hurting anyone consciously. What is interesting in this collective effort is that when people from different religious traditions reflect on values from enlightened humanistic perspectives, they quickly discover that they have much in common, and that everything that is of universal  ethical value in the religions can be upheld without doctrinal and metaphysical assumptions.

With all that, interfaith conflicts and crimes have continued:. The world has witnessed the 9/11 atrocity, the launching of Gulf War II, and countless religious acrimony and sectarian slaughter. No matter how genuine and enlightened our ethical declarations, ultimately group actions are guided by the basic instincts of selfishness and cultural self-righteousness. Take away the first, and groups may not survive. At the very least, selfishness must be tempered. Take away the second, and there may be no absolute conviction about the mysteries that confound us.

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28. CRITERIA FOR TRUTH CONTENT IN   RELIGION

Not infrequently, debates and conflicts arise between science and religion because the proponents of each side adopt different criteria for sanctioning validity to propositions. It will therefore be helpful if there is mutual recognition – not necessarily adoption – of what these are. There are at least seven criteria by which a proposition is taken to be true in the religious framework.

First,  religions are based on the teachings or revelation of personages who are regarded as spiritually awakened. These teachings are generally accepted as conveying higher truths from a supernatural source. In other words, the source of religious truths is accepted as a higher authority.

Religious truths are felt to be as such in the deepest core of one's being, beyond cerebral analysis and reasoning. As long as this conviction is there, the associated statement is taken as a religious truth. Such a conviction is what one calls, in the Biblical phrase, "the evidence of things not seen."

What this implies is that though every religion is practiced in a group-cultural context, it has also a profoundly personal dimension for the individual. Like art and music, religious truths are felt and internalized rather than critically dissected and logically proved, except by theologians and philosophers. There may be a crowd in a museum but each person experiences a painting at a deeply personal level. That is how religious truths are also experienced.

Religious visions often lead the practitioner to heightened states of consciousness arising from an actual or perceived communion with the cosmos at large. This may range from a simple experience of inner peace, as during prayer or meditation, to the ecstasy of heightened mystical experience. This is very different from the thrill that comes from scientific knowledge, for it doesn’t need understanding of complex concepts.

Religions rest on the attestation of authorities who have confirmed the proclamations of the initial sources. No traditional religion is without inspired commentators.

Religious truths provide purpose and meaning to human existence.

Religious affiliation has significant impact on the psychological/emotional life of the practitioner. This explains the appeal and persistence of religions.

These criteria hold for all traditional religions. Non-traditional religions (such as religious naturalism, humanism, Unitarianism) formulate rules which reject or alter some of the principles enunciated above. Their goal and practice are different from those of traditional religions. The newer religious visions tend to move away from beliefs that diverge from scientific findings, and try to do away with some of the negative side-effects of traditional religions. But they also have the potential for eradicating some of the positive features of traditional religions. In the reduction of everything to facts, figures and provable propositions, some of the poetic elements of the religious experience are diluted, while the solace and comfort that the magic of traditional religions provide are all but erased.

It is important to recognize that one reason for conflicts between science and religion is that scientific criteria for ascribing validity to propositions are quite different. It is not a question of which set of criteria is right and which is wrong, or which is better and which is worse. It is not just a matter of adopting one or the other, but of recognizing the contextual relevance, significance, and value of each.  What one adopts or rejects also depends on the up-bringing and experience of the individual.

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29. CRITERIA FOR TRUTH CONTENT IN SCIENCE

As I noted in the last essay, the two systems - science and religion - have quite different sets of rules when they operate in their well-defined spheres of concerns. The seven criteria for scientific truths would be the following:

First is logical consistency. Science is a rational enterprise. That is to say, it is based on reason, logic, proof, inner consistency, and the like. Anything that violates these will not be admitted as a scientific truth.

However, science is not a purely logical system of thought, like pure mathematics or metaphysics or speculative philosophy. Therefore, concordance with observed facts is another important criterion. Science is primarily concerned with the world of experience and of reality such as it is recognized by the normal human doors of perception. To be of interest or validity to science, propositions must conform to every detail of empirically derived data, both qualitative and (when possible) quantitative.

Scientific results are not one-shot experiences. They have to be confirmed and re-confirmed over and over again. This means that propositions claimed to have scientific validity must be verified and repeatable. But it is important to understand that repeatability may be actual or in principle. There are many domains of science where results are not repeatable in actuality. This is so, for example, in the fields of planetary formation, archaeology, and of course, cosmogony. In these contexts, what one means by repeatability is that very similar/parallel phenomena may in fact be repeated or reproduced experimentally.

Consistency with related phenomena is crucial. No scientific result stands by itself. Every scientific statement about a phenomenon is or should be related in some way or other to some other phenomena.

In order for a proposition to be taken seriously by the scientific community, it must carry actual or potential consensus among experts. In other words, it has to be subjected to careful and critical examination by others who have studied the matter seriously and systematically. Without this possibility, a proposition presented to the world of science is usually ignored or rejected.

Only when experts in a field are persuaded of the correctness of a new proposition, not by voting but by confirming it in various ways, extending it, elaborating upon it, and relating it to other well-established results, does a proposition  become part of the general body of scientific knowledge.

Even after this has happened, there is an implicit understanding that even the most reliable confirmation is provisional. That is, no scientific result, law, theory, or principle is taken as the last word. The scientific community leaves open the possibility that further evidence that might arise in the future could question, change, or throw out what has thus far been considered to be true. This is an important difference in perspective between science and religion.

These criteria hold for practicing scientists and for the scientific establishment as a whole. We may look upon science as a game that a community of participants agree to play on the basis of well-defined rules. In a sense, this may be said of religion also. Disagreements inevitably arise when people play together, as when two teams play ball, one following the rules of soccer and the other the rules of basketball.

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30. THEOLOGY AS SCIENCE

Religion has experiential as well as intellectual dimensions. The latter is reflected in a time-honored discipline which approaches religion in ways similar to what obtains in the scientific enterprise. Known as theology (etymologically, a systematic study of God), its goal is to analyze, understand, and formulate in a reasoned framework the doctrines and worldviews of a religion.

Thus, theology is a rational enterprise: That is to say, it is based on logic and reason, exactly like science. Pursued by keen thinkers in practically all classical religious systems, it takes into account the facts of experience vouched by religiously inspired sources, and attempts to give cogent interpretations to the statements and texts from these. As a discipline, theology is quite old. The word may be traced to Aristotle who spoke of theologike as the systematic study of the nature of the divine. There have been theologians in the Judaic, Islamic, and Hindu traditions also, although one seldom uses this term in Non-Christian contexts.

Until the twentieth century, following the Aristotelian classification of human inquiries into mathematics, physics, and theology (metaphysics), theologians generally considered their discipline as separate from science, essentially different in scope and concern, though no less systematic and analytical in its approach. Theology is concerned with cosmogenesis, ethical behavior, goal and ultimate salvation, and other questions of profound significance to the human condition. During the twentieth century, as science began to investigate issues relating to the origin of the universe, the genetic roots of human tendencies, the neuro-physiological origins of human behavior, the psychological dimensions of unethical desires, and the like, theologians could not remain indifferent to advances in the sciences. Many of them became interested in physics, astronomy, biology and psychology, and weaved the results of science into their discussions. From these emerged the view that theology may be regarded as another branch of science.

Among the thinkers who have articulated this point of view in the Christian tradition is Wolfhart Pennenberg who argued that though science and theology are different in their concerns, both deal with the domain of public reality. He went on to say that science needs theology for establishing a foundation for the Laws of Nature which it discovers. In the Hindu world, Sri Aurobindo was an eminent scholar of stature who, with a profound understanding of Hindu visions, formulated its essence in the context of modern scientific perspectives views like evolution.

There are two planes in the human experience of reality: the external and the internal. There are aspects of the world that we consider, study, speculate upon, and explain whose impact on us as beings with feelings, emotions, and culture is minimal. On the other hand, there are aspects whose consideration, study, and speculation   have significant impact on our feelings, emotions, and cultural identities. The scientific enterprise deals by and large with matters of the first kind, whereas theology is concerned with matters of the second kind.

Thus, we may look upon theology as a sophisticated enterprise that analyzes issues related to those aspects of human existence that touch us profoundly as beings situated in a cultural/religious framework with a history, rooted in traditional and spiritual sources, especially in a context where science marginalizes the human presence as an inconsequential (in the long run) byproduct of the laws of nature.

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31. Science as Theology

Every theology is based on some doctrines. In fact, a set of doctrines is sometimes referred to as a theology. Doctrines are statements which one is expected to accept and believe in, without any or sufficient proof. Often there are advantages to accepting doctrines: In the religious context, the acceptance of doctrines permits membership in a group, and it may lead to positive feelings and certain types of enhanced experiences as a human being.

In the scientific world too there are some basic doctrines, though they are seldom explicitly stated as such. For example, the statement that every feature of the experienced world must be intelligible to the human mind, i.e. can be adequately explained by the exercise of reason through  scientific methodology, is a doctrine to which the scientific community subscribes. The statement that every occurrence has a cause is another doctrine in science. Or again, of a set of possible explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest is the correct one is also a universally accepted and implicit scientific doctrine.

Another important doctrine of science is that the laws of nature operate everywhere in space, and have not changed since the genesis of the universe. [These have been shown to be related to the conservation of linear momentum and of energy.] It could, in principle, be that different laws operate in different remote galaxies. But such an assumption would make it impossible for science to consider cosmology. Science is an intellectual enterprise, which means that it needs a well-defined framework to operate.

The most compelling argument for accepting some the doctrines of science is that on their basis, science has been able to obtain an impressive range of significant and consistent results pertaining to perceived reality.

Up until the first decade of the twentieth century, physicists were largely concerned with the explanation of observed phenomena. Indeed, this was the avowed goal of science. However, in the twentieth century, Albert Einstein initiated a search which was quite different from this classical goal: He tried to develop a (mathematical) theory which would unify electromagnetic and gravitational fields. This was probably the first time that physics strived to develop a theory, whose purpose was not to explain any observed phenomenon, but to formulate mathematically elegant laws. Einstein's efforts in this regard had nothing to do with data or experiments, but was inspired by the conviction that harmony and simplicity reign in the universe. It was left to experimentalists to discover, if possible, phenomena in which the two fields would  actually be shown to be interconnected (unified). The only inspiration for Einstein’s efforts was that in the previous century J. C. Maxwell had succeeded in unifying the electric and the magnetic fields.

The search for unity in the absence of experimental pointers may be described as scientific theology, in that its is based on a doctrine for which there is no observational evidence. To say that there is a theological dimension to science is not to belittle it, but to recognize that this enormously powerful enterprise rests on some unproven, but immensely rewarding fundamental assumptions.

Finally, and with a negative connotation, the dogmatic assertion that everything must be ultimately reduced to science and that the only thing of relevance or significance is science, is known as scientism. This too is a kind of theology.

32. Theory in Science

The word theory is derived from the Greek theoria: speculation or view.  It is used in English in different contexts.  One speaks of Plato's theory of ideas,  Cantor's theory of sets, Hobbes' political theory, impressionist theory of art, and the Hindu theory of knowledge.  In each instance, the word has a slightly different meaning, the only common feature in them is that there is a conceptual framework in each case.  In common parlance, simple beliefs are sometimes referred to as theories.  A detective might say, "My theory is that it is Mrs. Jones' paramour who ate up all the cheese."  Likewise, the belief, once popular, that the right ovary produced male children, and the left ovary female ones, is sometimes called a theory.  "According to the Aristotelian theory," writes one author, "heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones."

In scientific literature, and especially in physics, theory has a very clear meaning and function.  It is certainly not a simple belief, nor just another way of looking at things.  It is meant to serve an explanatory goal.  Efforts to explain physical phenomena and their generalizations (laws of nature) lead to the formulation of theories.  A theory in science is the conceptual development of a set of basic ideas and inter-relationships concerning an aspect of the world in terms of which observationally authenticated phenomena and empirically derived laws may be clearly understood.

Johannes Kepler's First Law of planetary motion said that all planets move in elliptical orbits with the sun at one of the foci. We may ask why planets follow such orbits rather than, say, circular or square ones.  Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation, based on some fundamental assumptions about forces between masses in the physical world, is a body of mathematical development in terms of which the empirically derived laws of planetary motions can be explained.  Similarly, Niels Bohr's theory of the hydrogen atom is based on certain basic assumptions, and its function is to account for the empirically observed results pertaining to the spectral lines of hydrogen.  A theory must explain, not simply describe, some aspect of the physical world.

Sometimes two rival theories may explain the same set of phenomena.  In such a case, it is hard to decide which one to accept.  A classic case of this happened in the 18th century as to the nature of light: the corpuscular and the wave theories. Both could successfully explain all the then known optical phenomena.  However, it followed from the corpuscular theory that light should travel faster in water than in air, whereas according to the wave theory, it should be the other way around. 

The experimental resources of 18th century physics were not sufficient to test out which of these two consequences is actually the case.  In the course of the l9th century, Jean Foucault and Armand Fizeau succeeded in doing the appropriate experiments that determined the velocity of light in air and in water, and found that light travels faster in air than in water.  The corpuscular theory of light had to be abandoned.  An experiment of this kind which decides between two competing, till then equally valid theories, is known as a crucial experiment.

There is an anecdote about a famous physicist (Wolfgang Pauli) to the effect that he once told a fellow scientist: "Your theory is not even wrong," meaning it was most uninteresting. As a mater of fact, a scientific theory is never right or wrong: it is only good or bad, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, successful or unsuccessful, acceptable or unacceptable, because the goal of a theory is to explain some aspect of perceived reality and not the proclamation of absolute truth.

 

33. Theories in Religions

The role of a theory is to explain observed phenomena. This sometimes involves entities that are not directly perceived. From this perspective, one may say that there are theories in the religious framework also.

Perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon in the universe is its very existence, and that of human beings, not just as biological entities, but as feeling and  reflecting creatures that engage in love and hate, create and destroy, hope and despair, formulate moral injunctions, and then are transformed into cold and inert bodies bereft of the consciousness that kept them alive and kicking.

Religions attempt to explain cosmogenesis, biogenesis, and ethicogenesis. Their answers may  be looked upon as theories also. The Vedas, the Bible, and the Koran, for example, all  tell us about how Man was created. From an epistemic perspective, these are efforts to explain the presence of the world and of humans on the planet.

Consider the phenomenon of suffering, and its non-uniform distribution. This is a feature of the experienced world for which traditional religions have offered a variety of explanations. In the Hindu framework, uneven pain and pleasure is explained in terms of actions in previous births (law of karma and reincarnation). In the Christian tradition, one explains all suffering in terms of the original sin of Adam, and in God's mysterious modes of operation. Islam generally explains it all as the will of God. In the Buddhist worldview, aside from karma, pain and suffering are the result of attachment. All these are attempts to explain observed facts, and may therefore be regarded as theories. Science has not yet been able to come up with adequate explanations for such matters relating to the human condition.

Traditional religions have  also offered theories about ultimate reality.  Though these are usually presented as philosophy or metaphysics, they are also explored by theologians in many traditions. Science is concerned with every aspect of reality such as it appears through our faculties of  perception. Philosophy and religion develop theories about the nature of reality per se, sometimes suggesting that it is all no more than a grand illusion resulting ignorance of spiritual truths.

In humanity's history, these theories in religion are embodied in texts that have acquired sanctity. So they have a degree of invulnerability within religious frameworks. Scientific and religious theories differ, not in the goal of their proponents - which is to offer explanations, but in the attitude of their adherents to them. It is important to recognize that their authors were some of the keenest minds in history who sought to solve the perennial mystery of origins in what seemed to them to be the most reasonable terms. Being extraordinarily intelligent, it is quite possible that if the authors of those texts were to come back, they would want to revise their theories in the light of current knowledge and understanding.

One important difference between scientific and religious theories is this: The success of religious theories are judged, not by their resilience in the face of logical and empirical scrutiny, but  by the reverence associated with their sources. The sanctity of the original texts result from their association with the divine whence they have flown to humans via revelation to some individuals. Since religious theories don't depend on verification of their logical consequences, competing and mutually contradictory religions can flourish and have flourished all through history.

 

 
34. Cognitive Dissonance and Experiential Bisonance

There are many people who conduct their lives while simultaneously holding on to what to others may seem to be incompatible worldviews. Isaac Newton, Augustin Cauchy, Michael Faraday, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example, all of whom were clear thinking and gifted individuals, had deep religious convictions which, when brought under the microscope of logical rigor and empirical demands, might not stand firm. It is not that these people couldn’t reason. Indeed, to this day there are many good thinkers and creative scientists who are meticulous in their methodology when arguing, observing and theorizing, but are also committed to some doctrinal dimensions or spiritual visions of their faith community.

In the 1950s, the psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the notion of cognitive dissonance: a state in which people sometimes hold contradictory or irreconcilable opinions, which could create internal tension and affect one's behavior. Festinger noted that "there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance." He went on to say that "dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory."

It would seem that this notion of cognitive dissonance as a negative or unstable mental state isn’t not always applicable in matters relating to science and religion. In the case of scientists and mathematicians thus described, their views seem to them to be complementary rather than contradictory.

Perhaps what is to be recognized here is that in order to understand something, we use our mind: thinking, reasoning, logic, etc. However, this is only one aspect of conscious living. In many instances, we feel rather than analyze: whether it is a beautiful sunset, the suffering of another, a piece of music, or love for a dear one.

One result of the enormous successes of rationalistic science is that we have come to attach far greater significance to whether one thinks rationally than to how deeply one feels. Though interconnected, thinking and feeling often reign separately, and even when both co-exist, one may be more dominant. Pascal was only stating an ancient truth when he wrote: Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas: The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

Most normal human beings oscillate between the two modes of experience: thinking and feeling. While one is in the feeling mode, logic and analysis recede, though they don’t disappear. We are bipedal, bimanual, binaural, and binocular. Likewise, we  are also bisonant creatures: responding to the logical constraints of the head and also to the sensitivities of the heart, if one may put it metaphorically. [Ultimately both thoughts and feelings occur in the head.] It has been our boon that we are feeling creatures and also, erring from time to time in impeccable syllogism. It is our capacity to deviate from the path of rigid reason that enables us to imagine great poetry, create great art, empathize, and be religious also. Those who optimize their thinking and feeling modes, who are sharply scientific and deeply religious and (in the best meanings of the word) don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance, but enjoy enlightened bisonance. From the purely analytical perspective, this may seem strange, just as for those constrained only by feelings,  scientific understanding of the rainbow might appear to be a heartless dissection of glorious nature.

 

35. Why in Science and Why in Religion

The question "Why does something happen?" arises in science as well as in religion. However, the meanings attached to the question are implicitly different in the two contexts. Suppose you are asked, “Why are you reading this now?” Two types of answers are possible (a) "Because I always read discussions on science and religion." (b) "Because I wish to find out what is said here."

Note that answer (a) refers to the past, to a built in system in which the event takes place, the rules by which the phenomenon occurs, etc. Generally speaking, science interprets why in this way when it tries to answer why-questions. The question actually means here: What is the cause of what happened? This may be called causative why.

The answer (b) refers to something that is yet to happen, actions directed toward a goal, etc. This is tele (teleologica)l why. Generally speaking, religion interprets why in this way when it tries to answer the question. In most European languages (French pourquoi, Spanish porque, German Warum) the second meaning (for what, to what purpose) is implicit. In Tamil one distinguishes between én (causative why) and edarkâga. teleological why. This is not as clear in the English word why.

When religion  tries to answer why in the causative sense, it comes into conflict with science. Normally, modern science does not interpret why in the tele-sense, except when some biologists talk of entelechy. Physicists hold that interpreting why in the tele sense, as Aristotle did, is a fruitless exercise. So they conclude - rashly perhaps - that the question in that sense is meaningless. Nevertheless, since the formulation of the Anthropic Principle the tele why has crept back into cosmology.

Consider the questions: Why is the sky blue? Why does water boil when heated? Why do planets go around the sun in elliptical orbits? Why does hydrogen emit particular wavelengths? Why does a projectile follow a parabolic path? These and a thousand other why’s are answered routinely by science in the causative sense of the word, and not in the tele sense. But questions like: Why did the world emerge? Why should one be kind to others? Why is monogamy a virtue? are all taken up by religion in the tele sense.

Recognizing that science can be successful in answering one type of question, and relegating to others (religion, philosophy, poetry) the other kind, may be wise. It would also be good if religion gracefully concedes to science the responsibility of answering why in the causative sense. The following poem throws light on this: 

I once asked a scientist why the sky was so blue,

He was not sure if the answer he knew.

"I thought you knew it all," in surprise said I.

"Your why isn’t clear,” he gave as reply.

"If you wish to know the reason, why blue is the sky:

Blue waves are scattered, and reach the human eye.

For what purpose is it blue, and it is not green?

That I know not. You see, what I mean."

I asked a man of religion why the sky was so blue.

He said in the Scriptures there was for this a clue:

God made us and the world, this of course is true,

        And to give us more joy , He made sky so blue.

 

36. On the Mechanistic World Model

The mechanistic worldview regards the world as a huge machine, operating routinely and ceaselessly in accordance with precise and immutable laws, utterly unaware of why it is doing what it is doing, and indifferent to whether its functioning has any impact on anything, living or non-living. Underlying the mechanistic view is the notion that ultimately the world can be reduced to bits of matter, which are endowed with intrinsic properties like mass, electric charge, and such,  which bump and bounce, instigated by inter-bit forces, rearranging themselves endlessly in countless patterns, causing all the changes and events in the phenomenal world.

The mechanistic model for describing and manipulating the physical world is ancient. Archimedes in old Greece and others in other traditions, who toyed with devices and gadgets, wondered about the whole world functioning in routine regularity, like stars and planets in the skies. During the European Renaissance, investigators like Niccolò Tartaglia and Leonardo da Vinci gave mechanism a boost. The dissection the human body by Andreas Vesalius, the formulation of planetary laws by Johannes Kepler, and the quantitative analyses of motion by Galileo Galilei, as also the Cartesian philosophical framework and Newtonian physics: all made the machine model an appealing framework for science. Some of the major founders and propagators of the mechanistic paradigm, like Marin Mersenne and Robert Boyle, were also men who were deeply committed to religion.

It was only a small step to extend this model to animals, and then to humans. If creatures were automata for Descartes, to his compatriot La Mettrie, Man was no different. In his book entitled L'Homme machine (1748), La Mettrie developed the idea that human beings are nothing more than complex and intricate structures which function in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry. He wrote that "soul is but an empty word of which no one has any idea," that "the soul and the body fall asleep together," and that death was merely "the end of a farce."

From the 17th century until the middle of the 19th, the mechanistic model generally implied the equivalent of cogs and wheels, a clockwork of carefully crafted material subunits working everywhere per immutable laws. However, with the discovery of the electromagnetic field and waves through immaterial space, it became difficult to adhere strictly to materialistic mechanism.

Two points may be noted: Every machine is designed and constructed by intelligent beings. So, this enormously complicated and stable machine (the Universe) could well have been designed and created by a super-intelligence. This opens up possibilities with which those who deny things of this sort feel uncomfortable. They would rather believe that the cosmic machine emerged by itself. Secondly, practically every machine has a purpose. Unlike a painting or a poem, machines are meant to do or accomplish something specific. It would therefore seem not unreasonable to imagine that this cosmos too has some ultimate purpose. This again has traditional religious undercurrents.

In any event, the view of the universe as a giant machine whose component parts can be analyzed in terms of their various components and guiding principles has been an immensely insightful framework. It has yielded more harvests than most other models of the world. However, exploration of the microcosm calls for subtle refinements to the mechanistic model.

 

37. On the Organismic World Model

Organisms require component parts to constitute their structure, but an appropriate combination of materials (molecules/chemicals) is not sufficient to create an organism without another organism. Thus, we can construct an automobile or a TV set by using the same materials as in a prototype of the thing; we don't need another automobile or TV set to make a new one. With living organisms the situation is different. We don't have any instance of an organism arising without another one, although we have synthesized some complex organic and biochemical molecules.

In the current scientific paradigm, the first living organisms arose from the combination of chemicals (molecules) under appropriate conditions. Since then, organisms have been formed through reproduction and evolution, from other living organisms. Spontaneous generation of life - a tenet to which many subscribed for ages, -was given up in the 19th century.

Another important feature of organisms is that their functions are governed by the need to survive and propagate. Their individual and collective goals are self/group-centered. Furthermore, there does not seem to have been any long range goal in the millions of species that have emerged and perished. Human beings are unique in this: they are the only ones who are concerned about their individual long-range status (health insurance, post mortem status, etc.). This is unlike any machine.

In physics, one speaks of the principles of least action, of least path, etc. which are account for many phenomena.  Thus the laws governing the propagation of light may be explained as arising from a need to take the shortest path from one point to another, as most animals would. This has sometimes been interpreted as reflecting goal-oriented behavior in nature. In our own times, the remarkable coincidences in the values of some fundamental constants which lead in concert to the abundance of carbon in the universe, so essential for life, have been interpreted as a reflection of an anthropic principle: by which one asserts that the universe was intended for the eventual emergence of humans, if not uniquely physicists.

In much of ancient science, there was the belief that the human body was a microcosm: a miniature universe. It was believed at one time that there are seven apertures in the face because there are seven planets up there and seven days in the week, and because God had created it all and rested in the course of seven days. Thus, the world was regarded as functioning much like an organism. From religious perspectives, nature and the world itself behave like organisms with purposes.

Much of post-17th century science has regarded the world (including organisms) to be functioning like machines. Even today, most physicists cringe at the notion that the big bang occurred with us in mind. That idea goes counter to the Copernican discovery which decisively removed us from the cosmic center. Generally, physicists are more inclined to describe the universe not as an organism at all, but as mindless, non-goal-oriented, subservient to the fundamental interactions and to their macroscopic manifestations like molecular bonds. They don't like to look upon the universe as a well-planned process propelled by some sort of inherent intelligence.

The mechanistic model is fruitful in its explanatory potential, and in its grand sweep of results. The organismic model is tantalizing in certain contexts, and is, for many, far more beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps the universe, like humans, is an extraordinarily complex system whose purpose, if any, that we cannot ever fathom.

 

38. Ways of Being Religious

All of us function in a framework of values and worldviews. Religions furnish us with a grand backdrop for life, which provides meaning and purpose. From this perspective, all of us are religious one way or another. It has been rightly said that in a deeper sense human beings are more religious than rational.

Being religious can have positive effects on one's thoughts and actions, but not infrequently, the opposite is what one observes. Since the vast majority of people in the world are affiliated to one religion or another, it may be that it is not being religious that matters, but how one is so. There are different ways of being religious.

There are many ways in which being religious can be enriching, comforting, and meaningful. Some of these include accepting the revelations of a prophet, regarding a historical personage as the embodiment or messenger of the Divine, considering a body of writings as holy and beyond question, engaging in periodic worship of the sacred symbols of a tradition, taking part in the sacraments of time-honored rituals, participating in the celebrations of a community, abiding by the moral injunctions of a religion as best one can, subscribing to a doctrinal framework as to the hereafter. These are some of the ways in which one may be religious in a denominationally determined way. Not everyone attaches the same degree of weight to these, but millions also adhere to them in the various religions of the human family, deriving significant fulfillment.

There is another mode, provoked by the ugly manifestations of religions over the ages: persecution, perversity, bigotry, casteism, intolerance, inquisition, and superstitions. Here one derides all faiths, writes off God as a product of misled minds, rejects everything whose origin is in organized religious traditions, regards those who subscribe to a religion as deluded souls, is suspicious of those who preach a religion, is opposed to all religious symbols, treats  religious inclinations as anti-secular, can’t see even aesthetic value in  rituals, and keeps  reminding the world of the danger of religious fanatics. Though its practitioners imagine themselves to be non-religious, this mode is no less religious in fervor and conviction.

There is a third way: This includes recognizing the unique potential of the human spirit and experience, affirming our finitude in the face of unimaginable grandeur, looking upon personal achievements with humility, regarding consciousness as unfathomable mystery, experiencing awe at the magnificent universe, seeing something good in every  tradition that has brought meaning and solace to countless people,  respecting all faiths and facial features, having reverence for what others hold as sacred, but condemning and  eschewing all aspects of religion that harm and hurt, caring and being compassionate to weaker creatures, rejoicing in the observance of happy events,  considering  humanity as  a single family and all life as marvelous manifestations of extraordinary complexity, being touched by the piety of prayers and moved by the magic of music,  meditating on an Unknown Wholeness in an effort to connect with it, conducting one's life and profession with due regard to one's responsibility towards others and the environment,  doing whatever one can to alleviate pain and suffering, and reckoning "Thou shalt not hurt" as primary ethics.

There are also other ways of being religious, some combining elements from all the above. Ultimately each of us decides how to be religious in one's own way.

 

39. Ways of Being Scientific

The power and prestige of science is so great that even those who would decry it or remind us of its limits claim to be scientific. But what exactly is being scientific? Like being religious, there are different ways of being scientific too.

To keep abreast of developments in science from news reports and popular articles, to respect scientists, their work, and science's theories about the phenomenal world, to reject pseudoscience which flourished in the past and has not yet died away, to be literate in basic mathematics, to be able to read   graphs and interpret large numbers written in the form of ten to the power of something, to understand the difference between  facts of observation and theories that account for them, to be able to tell the difference between explanations from the scientific community those from stray outsiders who propagate their ideas through books rather than as papers in peer-reviewed journals: These are among the ways of being intelligently scientific.

Some  present weird theories in scientific jargon in a technical framework, with scant attention to evidentiary rigor. Some talk about supernatural phenomena, insist that numerology and astrology are sciences, and  use computers to caste horoscopes. Some argue that aliens brought civilization to earth, and insist that UFOs are wreaking havoc on us. Yet others  see modern science couched in ancient books, and don't distinguish insightful poetry from scientific propositions. Some initiate religions with the epithet scientific, or prove God from thermodynamics and quantum mechanics.  All these illustrate ways of being well-meaningly scientific.

One is professionally scientific when affiliated to a scientific profession which calls for data collection and systematic study; when one measures and computes;  when one explores how scientific knowledge may be applied for practical purposes; when one has acquired much of the knowledge pertaining to a particular field and contributes to a discipline through papers in journals and conferences.

One is epistemologically scientific when one respects reason and carefully acquired data, demands coherence and consistency in explanations, recognizes the importance of instruments and mathematics in science, and knows that attempts to  understand the world requires systematic study of complex interconnections. In this mode, one probes into the world to uncover underlying simplicity, and one considers the truth-claims of propositions from dispassionate and critical perspectives with fellow investigators. Also, one realizes that the goal of science is to explain the phenomenal world in ways that are consonant with the results of carefully conducted experimentss, and concedes that it is neither the business nor within the competence of science to prescribe or proscribe human behavior, but only to describe the world.  In this mode one recognizes science as a lofty expression of the human spirit, but not as the all-encompassing mission of human existence, nor as the only mode of interacting with or appreciating the world of experience. The epistemologically scientific person is also aware that no scientific theory can claim to be the final and never-to-be-changed explanation of any phenomenon, but is the best one available in the context of all the available information on a subject. 

By putting on a religious garb or muttering arcane passages one may imagine one is  religious. Likewise some take themselves to be  scientific by using technical terms and extrapolating to speculative world pictures from meticulously derived knowledge. We don’t  need to be scientific about every aspect of human experience.

 

40. On the Unpleasant Sides of Religion, and Reactions

In the context of attitudes to established religion, people may be classified into three broad groups: Those who are affiliated to a religion, those who are indifferent to religions, and those who are opposed to all religions. To the third category belong many intelligent and thoughtful people who are also decent, compassionate, highly educated and enlightened. Why, one may wonder, are such people anti-religious? The simple answer is that historical religions have also unacceptable and unpleasant aspects.

Some religions tenets blatantly contradic scientific understanding. Such, for example, are the seven-day creation, the repeated incarnations of God in only one region of the world, the handing down of the Ten Commandments to an individual, the transmission of divine knowledge via an angel, the creation of Man in his totality in one stroke, the centrality of humans in the cosmos. Many have difficulty giving validity to these tenets.

Many superstitions are also associated with traditional religions. They range from fear of black cats and the number 13 to choosing auspicious times of travel on the basis of almanacs. These may be harmless, but those committed to pure rationalism reject them.

The unpleasant aspects of religion both of the past and of the present are more serious. In the name of God and righteousness, people have been burnt at stake and impaled. In the name of the right religion, other sects have been persecuted and massacred. In the fanatical fervor of one’s own religion, the symbols of other religions have been desecrated and demolished. For maintaining religious purity, co-religionists have been degraded and dehumanized. To safeguard the purity of worship places, the "impure ones" entering temples have been killed. In the zeal to fight for one’s religion, terrible wars have been raged. Religious laws have permitted maiming, mutilating, stoning, and decapitating. Because one’s own religious conviction does not allow for abortion, abortion clinics have been burned, and doctors have been shot to death. Acts of ruthless terrorism have been (are being) committed after reciting stanzas from a holy book. The list can go on and on.

There is a difference between atheism which is a philosophical position, and anti-religion which is a social commentary. The atheist is content with his or her own disbelief in God. The anti-religionist would like to see all traditional religions eradicated from society because of the evil they have wrought, and their potential for more.

All through history, keen minds have spoken out against religions because of such things. In ancient India, Charvaka spoke out against religion in the strongest terms. In Greece, Socrates was accused of atheism. In the 18th century, Voltaire wrote against religious beliefs. In our own times, the Tamil atheist E. V. Ramaswami Naickar declared: “He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”  Richard Dawkins wrote: “It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

    Irrespective of epistemology, religions have by and large elevated the human spirit to  higher levels, contributed immensely to art and music and poetry, and restrained the urge for self-serving behavior in an ethical framework. They have given meaning, purpose, and consolation to millions. Like nuclear energy, pesticides, and coal burning, they have also had catastrophic consequences. One would hope that with appropriate awakening, the worst of religions would be weeded out and the best would be preserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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