Hope for the Future: Balancing Scientific Temper and Spiritual Wisdom
Published on June 13th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff6
The following essay won 1st prize in the 3rd All India Students’ Conference on Science and Spiritual Quest (AISSQ) Essay Competition.
By Vivek Kaul (Gaura-vijaya dasa)
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” These are the famous words of one of the greatest scientists of all time, Albert Einstein. In today’s world the relevance of this quotation cannot be underestimated, especially when we see the strife and tension the whole planet has been facing for decades now. The great strides made by science have led towards comprehensive understanding of the laws governing nature and the universe. The increasing advances of technology, especially in communication and healthcare, have provided us beautiful, sophisticated gadgets to make our lives easier, as well as great surgical procedures and medicines to cure and treat innumerable diseases and debilitating conditions. In spite of all this, we see that there is an existential crisis in society today because of the lack of purpose or direction in human lives.
Here is where religion or spirituality enters the picture. Although the word religion may carry a host of negative connotations today due to extremist elements of organized religion, it originally meant something pretty close to spirituality. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Greek word ‘religios’, meaning to bind back or connect to the source. It is very similar to the Sanskrit word yoga, which essentially has the same meaning. I will be using ‘religion’ with this meaning throughout this essay. According to both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, our purpose in life is to move in harmony with the will of the Absolute.
We all feel that it is indeed reasonable and important to ask ourselves how we should try to conduct our lives. Achieving perfection in our relationship with the Absolute and its entire creation is the highest ideal our life can be based on. This presupposes a good deal of conscious thought and self-education. It seems undeniable that the enlightened Greeks and the Indian sages had achieved more in this all-important field than what is present in our schools and universities.
If ancient spiritual wisdom is the thesis, then modern science devoid of any influence of spirituality is its antithesis. We hope to achieve a synthesis, in Hegelian terms, of the two supposedly irreconcilable and conflicting elements of science and spirituality. That will pave the way for great human progress and build a future which all generations to come will cherish. Any development in this endeavor will benefit all, breaking the barriers of nationality through the global connectivity and interdependence of the modern world.
Examining the contributions science and religion make to our world may show that synthesizing their apparently opposing elements will yield an approach to solving global problems and increasing humanity’s well-being.
The March of Science in the West
Though science has been pursued in many places in the East and in the Islamic world, the most significant recent developments in science have taken place largely in the West. Therefore, an attempt to trace out the history of this development may provide a clearer perspective on science.
The Classical Era
In the west, the Greeks were certainly the first to see the world as a question to be answered. They were particularly gripped by a passion for understanding, for penetrating the uncertain flux of phenomena and grasping a deeper truth; in pursuance of that quest, they established a dynamic tradition of critical thought. With the birth of that tradition and that quest came the birth of the western mind. All the thoughts of the Greek era ultimately culminated in the dual legacy of Plato and Aristotle. In them we find a certain elegant balance and tension between spiritual intuition and empirical analysis which will seem to confound the western mind later. In the two millenniums following Plato, the minds of the philosophers were directed towards the human soul and its relation to God, to the problem of ethics, and to the interpretation of revelation, but not so much to the study of the outer world.
This influence of Plato was more evident by the time of the Italian Renaissance, when interest in studying nature was revived. This was in the spirit of Aristotle, who thought that the world has an order that can be comprehended by the human intellect, which he believed to be divine. Due to scientific developments such as those initiated by Galileo and Copernicus, and philosophical systems developed by people like Descartes, there was an increasing consensus that religion could be kept distinct from knowledge of nature. The Cartesian division between the domain of religion and science was thought to be the best way of allowing both fields to flourish. Ingenious work was carried out by Newton, and then, following his lead, many distinguished personalities such as Faraday and Maxwell further clarified the workings of nature.
The march of science during the 19th century produced enormous confidence in its broad scope and potential. One field after another fell before the assault of objective inquiry, experimental approach, and the logic of science. Scientific laws appeared to take on an absolute quality, and it was very easy to be convinced that science in time would explain everything. During this time people like Pierre-Simon Laplace believed that once the position and momentum of a particle could be measured accurately, all the future events could be predicted exactly.
In life sciences, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution expressed to some degree the idea that the development of human species can be explained completely by the evolution of matter. Consequently, scientific reductionism and determinism dominated intellectual thought in the West. This was the time when a devout Christian, Louis Pasteur, when asked how he as a scientist could be religious, simply replied that his laboratory was one realm, and his home and religion another. Toward the end of the 19th century many physical scientists viewed their work as complete, requiring only some extension and more detailed refinement. But soon after, deep problems surfaced. The world presently seems unaware of how deep these problems really were, and of the extent to which some of science’s most fundamental ideas have been overturned by them. Perhaps this unawareness could be attributed to science’s passion for gathering new information, exploring new areas, and churning out a host of products with practical applications. Regardless, very few people are interested in understanding the deeper problems that theories like Quantum mechanics presented us.
The Modern Era
Two important theories changed the scientific understanding in the 20th century: the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. The theory of relativity, established by Albert Einstein, has deeply changed our views on the structure of space and time. This structure, defined by Newton as the basis of his mathematical description of nature, was simple and consistent. It also corresponded very closely to the concepts of space and time observable in daily life. This correspondence was in fact so close that Newton’s definitions could be considered as the precise mathematical formulations of these common concepts. Before the theory of relativity it seemed self evident that events could be ordered in time, independent of their location in space. We now know that this impression is created in daily life by the fact that velocity of light is greater than any other velocity occurring in practical experience. Even if we understand this restriction now, we can scarcely imagine that the chronological order of events should depend on their location.
Kant’s philosophy drew attention to the fact that concepts of space and time were so closely linked with our relation to nature that we could not describe nature without using these concepts. Consequently, these concepts are a priori in some sense: they are the condition for, and not primarily the result of, experience. Therefore, it was generally believed that they could not be touched by experience. The need for change came as a big surprise. It was the first time scientists learned to be cautious in applying concepts of daily life to the refined experience of modern science. This warning later proved extremely useful in the development of modern physics. It would certainly have been more difficult to understand quantum theory if the theory of relativity had not warned the physicists against the uncritical use of concepts taken from daily life and deterministic classical physics.
Another important challenge arose: the question of whether light is a particle or a wave. According to classical physics, which was based on experiments conceivable at that time, light was unequivocally a wave, not a particle. But by about 1900, newer experiments showed just as unequivocally that light is a stream of particles rather than waves. The solution to this paradox took several decades and was accomplished only with the new set of ideas known as quantum mechanics. Physicists today believe that light is neither a particle nor a wave. It can display properties of both. For that matter, everything has both properties, but we do not ordinarily observe this duality in large objects as they do not prominently show the wave characteristics.
Another strange aspect of quantum mechanics is called the uncertainty principle, formulated by Werner Heisenberg. This principle shows that if we try to say exactly where a given particle is, we cannot determine how fast it is going at the same time and vice versa. According to this theory, Laplace was wrong from the beginning. The modern laws of science seem to have turned our thinking from a world of complete determinism to a world where chance plays a role, at least on the atomic level. “Chance” refers to the fact that things cannot be predicted exactly by the mechanistic laws of scientific determinism. The word “chance” is not used in an atheistic manner, referring to everything being random and a result of the arbitrary interaction of fundamental particles. Scientists have become much more cautious and modest about extending scientific ideas into realms where they have not been tested.
Scientific laws may often very successfully suggest new perspectives or predict things we have not yet directly observed. Yet we should be aware that these extensions can be wrong in different realms and therefore we ought to be careful about the conclusions we draw. We know today that most sophisticated theories, including modern quantum mechanics, are still incomplete. We use them in certain areas and they work out well. But at times we run into inconsistencies which we do not understand, and here we must recognize that we missed some crucial ideas. We must simply admit and accept the paradoxes and hope that sometime in the future they can be resolved. In fact by best understanding this paradox, we will be able to correct our thinking. Now we move to analysis of Eastern thought, in particular Indian thought.
Ancient Eastern Wisdom
Ancient Eastern civilizations are the foundations of the two most populated countries in the world today: China and India. While there is no doubt that both ancient civilizations had their glorious past, it has to be acknowledged India had a great deal of influence on Chinese tradition, especially through Buddhism. As Hu Shih, the former Chinese ambassador to the United States, said, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.” So, with due respect to the rich Chinese tradition, it may serve us well to examine a few things about Indian thought.
Ancient Indian thought is based primarily on the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and a host of related literatures. There were six prominent schools of philosophy: Nyaya (philosophy of logic), Vaishesikha (atomic pluralism), Samkhya (theory of material nature and consciousness), Yoga (Patanjali’s eight-fold yoga system), Purva Mimamsa (dealing with the ritualistic portion of Vedas), and Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta (dealing with the philosophical teachings of the Vedas). All of these systems, though separate in some sense, mutually enriched each other throughout the ages. Among these schools, Samkhya and Vaishesikha schools analyzed material nature and atomic reality more meticulously than the others. The development of these philosophical schools was complemented by the development of sophisticated linguistics, music, fine arts, and science. So let us look briefly at the development of science in ancient India.
Science in Ancient India
Science and technology in ancient India covered many major branches of human knowledge and activities, including mathematics, astronomy and physics, metallurgy, medical science and surgery, fine arts, mechanical and production technology, and civil engineering and architecture. Actually, many, such as the French philosopher Voltaire and historian Romain Rolland, have hypothesized that many of the developments in ancient Greece resulted from an exchange of ideas with India. Noted British historian Grant Duff said, “Many of the advances in the sciences that we consider today to have been made in Europe were in fact made in India centuries ago.” While reviewing all the achievements of ancient India may be beyond the scope of this essay, they are available in numerous writings. Significant among those achievements is the development of the decimal system, the use of zero in mathematics, the prediction of orbits of planets and the assumption of heliocentric universe, and the development of the medical system of Ayurveda and the advanced system of surgery developed by Charaka and Susruta respectively.
Indian scriptures also have pointed to the idea of relativistic time in different planets and atomic measurement of time. One more interesting finding is that the prediction of the age of the universe conforms to the day and night of Brahma as mentioned in the Vedic writings. In fact, astrophysicist Carl Sagan asserts that Vedic tradition is the only ancient tradition which talks about the correct time scale. Another significant development is the 21st century cyclic theory, proposed by Alan H. Guth and Paul J. Steinhardt to resolve the mathematical incompatibility between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. Steinhardt suggested that there are several ways to explain this theory, one of which makes use of super-string theory. In this model, the universe is a three-dimensional “hypersurface” embedded in a space of extra dimensions and existing within a thin membrane. The universe undergoes an endless sequence of cycles in which it contracts in a big crunch and re-emerges in an expanding big bang, with trillions of years of evolution in between, almost exactly as outlined in ancient Vedic cosmology.
Vedanta’s Spiritual Paradigm and Its Influence on the West
In the Vedic tradition, all knowledge related to the material world should be subservient to spiritual knowledge about consciousness and God. Among all the philosophical systems, Vedanta is very comprehensive and clear about the spiritual goals of life. “Vedanta” means the end of knowledge, or our ultimate knowledge of truth. Vedanta refers specifically to the conclusions of the Vedas available especially in Vedanta Sutra, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. Modern science mainly studies material nature, whereas Vedanta studies both material as well as spiritual nature. Vedanta incorporates the spiritual reality of the soul and consciousness into the complete understanding of the world, including us. It demonstrates that only a spiritual dimension of reality can accommodate the reality of the soul and God. The book Vedanta Sutra consists of aphorisms or formulas that reveal the conclusions of Vedic knowledge of truth in a very condensed manner.
The first aphorism of Vedanta Sutra states that in the human form of life inquiry into the Absolute truth should begin earnestly. According to Vedanta, biodiversity is a process for accommodating the level of each individual’s consciousness, and there is a gradual evolution of consciousness passing from a lower to a higher conscious state according to the subtle laws of karma. So Vedanta Sutra advises that in this highly conscious human form, we should devote ourselves exclusively to inquiry into the Absolute Truth. This echoes the sentiment of Plato who said that the passionate and earnest search of the Absolute Truth is the only true goal of a philosopher. Vedanta stresses that knowledge also includes the development of saintly qualities and virtues which will make one more receptive to knowledge descending from God. These qualities include humility, non-violence, tolerance, simplicity and absence of manipulative behavior. We see, then, that Vedanta disagrees with the western notion that knowledge can be acquired independent of any practice of spiritual ethics.
Many western scientists have recently more actively explored the idea of consciousness as described in the Vedantic vision. Prominent among them are Erwin Schrodinger, David Bohm, Eugene Wigner, Werner Heisenberg, and Robert Oppenheimer. Schrodinger was enamored by the writings of the Upanishads and introduced the idea of consciousness in his writings. Heisenberg, who is among the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, gained much knowledge about Indian philosophy from his interaction with Rabindranath Tagore during his stay in India. According to him quantum mechanics contains statements about possibilities or tendencies of a system which can lead to one outcome eventually. He found great similarity between quantum mechanics and the non-mechanistic explanations of reality found in Indian and Platonic philosophy. According to Oppenheimer, “Access to the Vedas is the greatest privilege this century will claim over previous centuries.” Oppenheimer read the Bhagavad Gita in original Sanskrit and is famous for quoting a verse from the text on the event of the first nuclear explosion. His belief in consciousness as the primary force was so strong that he devoted a substantial portion of time to reading Vedic writings on this idea, even at the cost of his research work.
Some people outside the field of pure sciences also found inspiration in Vedic ideas. Among them were T.S Eliot and Hermann Hesse, both Nobel Prize winners in literature; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Schopenhauer, great philosophers of their time; and above all, Carl Jung, famous psychologist who made eastern mystical terms popular in the West. He said, “The idea that man is like unto an inverted tree seems to have been current in bygone ages. The link with Vedic conceptions is provided by Plato in his Timaeus in which it states that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant.” He appreciated the Vedantic idea of Superconsciousness or God from which all conscious beings and the world spring.
Integration of Science and Spirituality
Many people in the modern world give the argument that science and religion are completely opposing elements and a scientist’s faith in religion or spiritual principles may cloud his aibility to carry out unbiased research. This premise ignores the fact that great stalwarts like Newton, Maxwell, Pascal, Plank, Einstein, and Heisenberg who gave birth to modern science were very spiritual people. In fact their spiritual background lead to greater devotion in their scientific work to unravel the mysteries of God. Although many people like David Bohm, Schrodinger, and Fritjof Capra have written about integration of science and spirituality, I would especially like to mention the work done by Wolfgang Pauli, one of the last century’s leading physicists, in collaboration with Carl Jung.
Pauli’s thoughts on topics beyond physics are likely to serve as inspiration for the present and future development of science and culture. In recent years many of his ideas, expressed in his letters, provoked an increasing interest in the communities of philosophers, psychologists, and natural scientists. Pauli understood that physics necessarily gives an incomplete view of nature, and he was looking for an extended scientific framework to include the mind and the unconscious elements. He desired to integrate natural science within a greater holistic picture. Pauli said, “I do advocate an unlimited right of reason to control systems of thought; however, I allude to an extrarational mode of knowledge, which is acquired with resources different from reason. I think that this extrarational mode of knowledge is primordial and essential. There is not only thinking, there are also instinct, emotion, intuition, etc., and these additional psychological functions appear to me of highest significance wherever the wholeness of human beings is apprehended.”
Similarities between Science and Religion
The goal of science is to discover both the order in the universe and the laws behind workings of material nature, which may include us to some extent. Religion and spirituality aim at understanding of the purpose and meaning of our lives and our connection to God and his creation. Although it appears that many things in religion and science are diametrically opposite to each other, we may find on closer examination that this is not the case. One such element is faith, which is assumed to work only in the realms of religion; in fact, that is what supposedly differentiates science from religion.
But faith is essential to science, too, although we may find it harder to recognize faith as it appears in science. Scientists must have the faith that there is order in the universe and their own minds are capable of understanding some aspect of that order. Without this faith, there would be no point in devoting great energy to understand a presumably disorderly world. Einstein’s discoveries came from his intuitive and at times rigid devotion and faith in this order of the universe.
Many people also believe that while this scientific faith may be there, it can also be logically demonstrated with mathematical proof. These proofs give scientific ideas a certain kind of authority which religion cannot claim. This assumption, however, is very simplistic and does not account for the current stand of mathematics expressed by Gödel’s theorems. The great mathematician Gödel has shown that, in the most generally used mathematics, it is fundamentally impossible to show whether a set of postulates are even self-consistent. Also, he proved that within a certain mathematical system there are mathematical truths which cannot be proved by applying normal logic. This is similar to the conjecture found in Vedanta Sutra (2.1.11): “Logical arguments are inconclusive in arriving at the Absolute Truth.” Hence some limitations have to be acknowledged even in our study of science.
Another commonly cited difference between science and religion has to do with their methods of discovery. Religious or spiritual discovery is made often by revelation. Vedanta, in fact, says that although sense perception and logical inference can lead to knowledge, only revelation leads to conclusive knowledge: The infinite Absolute Truth can be known by the finite soul only when the former chooses to be revealed to the latter. Scientific discoveries, according to popular perception, come through logical deductions derived from experimental evidence which is repeatedly tested, and finally generalized into laws. However, most innovative scientific discoveries come about in a very different way, one which is similar to revelation, although the term revelation may be reserved for the religious realm.
A very well-known example is the discovery of the benzene ring by Kekule, who while musing at his fireside, was led to the idea by a vision of snakes taking their tail in their mouths. There is no mathematical or biological model to describe a process which leads to the creation of an important and new scientific insight. Many great scientific discoveries come through intuitive insights, perhaps even revelations, which later are corroborated by experimental testing, instead of coming through “scientific methods.” Obviously religion does have paradoxes which are hard to resolve, but so does science. When our faith in science is not shaken by paradoxes like the uncertainty principle, in the hope that they will be resolved at a later date, why should not the same be true for our faith in spiritual wisdom?
Finally, there is the question of the experimental validation of a hypothesis, which we conventionally assume can be done in science but not in spiritual practices. But it is not entirely impossible. For example, individual practitioners should feel an internal change after practicing a spiritual path, and this change should be reflected externally through their virtuous, exemplary, perhaps even saintly behavior. If that individual transformation does not take place, then either the spiritual path or the sincerity of the practitioner may need to be questioned. There might be differences between different spiritual traditions as there are among scientists but that also should not disturb us. In the end, we may find that science and spirituality are not the mutually exclusive entities we previously assumed them to be.
The Modern Crisis and the Need for Synthesis
In the modern era of science and technology we are facing a crisis of alarming proportion. The “Doomsday Clock,” the scientists’ way of signifying dangerous situations on earth, has recently been moved closer to midnight than it has been in over twenty years. This is not just due to tension between countries, religious sects, and creeds, but also due to unplanned industrialization and myopic application of technology, leading to environmental degradation in many countries. One example is an impending water crisis which much of the world will face in the next 15 years; it may be so severe that all industrial progress may amount to nothing if today’s visionaries cannot provide definitive solutions soon. Another is the World Health Organization (WHO) prediction that mental disease will be the biggest problem of the 21st century, indicating the failure of one-sided industrial development. This reminds us of Einstein’s assessment: “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.”
Since, in the present age, science and technology are prominent aspects of civilization, scientists have the opportunity to arouse humanity to the current dangers and to show them how important it is that all humankind, independent of national and ideological views, unite to meet the peril. Prosperity and political power depend on the state of science, and scientists cannot ignore these practical consequences even if their own interests in science are of a less practical nature. Thus, scientists will have an important role to play in propagating spiritual and ethical values in society.
Science’s objectivity can help religionists think more open-mindedly and avoid fanaticism. Similarly, science can incorporate spiritual principles and work with a more holistic picture to provide maximum benefit to people, not only on a physical level but also on an emotional and spiritual level. Ancient Indian wisdom, as we have seen, offers many insights into both the understanding of the physical universe and the cultivation of spiritual values. It will serve us well, then, to preserve and represent the great spiritual wisdom of our past and to incorporate these values in our scientific endeavor. Intellectual humility and honesty are very important values which are required for any earnest search in science, and these principles need to be respected at all times.
Scientists have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning; therefore, we need to be open to new ways of knowing things about nature. We must be reminded of the old wisdom that when searching for harmony of life one must never forget that in the drama of existence we are both players and spectators. So it is imperative that we broaden our conception of harmony with the entire creation of which we are a small part. This will especially improve the state of the environment, which we see degrading before our eyes. Hence, the synthesis between science and spiritual wisdom will be a blessing for all, and it will assuage a lot of pain throughout the world.
From the historical development of scientific thought in the West and description of ancient Indian wisdom, we find that science and spirituality are not irreconcilable. In fact, when they complement each other, they can provide humankind a great future and the ability to live amicably with multiple cultural traditions. We must use our best wisdom and instincts, the evidence of history and the wisdom of ages, and the experience and revelations of saints and heroes in order to closer to truth and meaning and move in concordance with the Absolute.