Or why non-Abrahamic Eastern religions do not have any conflict with science
Guest blog by Kashyap Vasavada, professor emeritus of physics, Purdue/Indianapolis universities
First of all, I thank Luboš for giving me an opportunity to express my views on this guest blog. I think, most of you, like me, read his blog to understand recent developments in physics. Luboš does an outstanding job in explaining these matters from a technical point of view and fills the gap between popular articles and original papers admirably. Social and political issues are also discussed here often, but you may be wondering whether this blog belongs here. I am hoping that you will find it interesting. At the very outset, let me make it absolutely clear that there is no question about the great success of scientific method during the last few hundred years. As is well known, the scientific method consists of making observations with the sense organs (mainly eyes with the help of devices like telescopes, microscopes, electronics etc.); making models using our brains and checking if these models agree with the observations. This trivial statement will be important when we talk about the other method. By following the scientific method, we now know unbelievably large amount about the universe we live in. It will be foolish for anyone to suggest that scientists should abandon this method for investigating the universe. Thus I would be arguing for, not science or religion, but rather for science and religion. In my opinion both science and religion have limitations and both are useful for the good of the mankind.
The immediate reason for writing this blog is a recent survey that only about 21% of Americans believe in Big Bang theory, 27% in 4.5 Billion years old Earth and 31% in theory of evolution. Assuming that the survey was correct, such a low rate of belief in science is probably based on literal interpretation by the participants, of their scriptures which were written thousands of years back. In the blog about that survey, I made a comment that Eastern religions (in particular Hinduism and Buddhism) do not have any problem with science whatsoever. In the following I will try to explain this assertion. In fact you would have hard time finding a single Indian (or someone from many other Asian countries) who believes in young Earth creationism or is against Big Bang theory or theory of evolution.
I will start with the concept of God in Hinduism. In some sense, Hinduism is the most misunderstood religion in the West, starting with its name! The real name is “Sanatana Dharma” meaning universal duty, responsibility or a prescribed way. The word “Hindu” was coined probably by Persians thousands of years back. They called people living near the river Sindhu (Indus) as Hindus! Unfortunately the word Hinduism is stuck like God particle for Higgs boson! So I will have to use it. The main scriptures are called “Vedas”, “Upanishads” and “Bhagvad Gita”. The religion did not originate from one prophet, but a number of sages contributed to the Vedic vision portrayed in the scriptures. Founding fathers of quantum theory like Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Bohr were familiar with these scriptures. These scriptures talk about (in Sanskrit) a formless, shapeless, omnipresent, omniscient God as Brahman. It is a universal, ultimate, super consciousness. It is supposed to be present in every particle of the universe. Thus the Hindu concept is: God is not like a king emperor who created the universe and rules arbitrarily from outside but it is an all pervading eternal entity. This consciousness may be present in every living and non-living matter i.e. in every single part of the universe and it would be synonymous with the laws of nature. The expression of consciousness in different systems may be different. So how do you realize it? Well, the sages say that you have to prepare your mind to receive it. Even in a scientific lab you have to prepare your system to observe any effect. In a sense this is similar to the fact that electromagnetic waves (including CMB) are present all around us and we do not realize their existence unless we have radio, TV, microwave detectors etc. Remember, Higgs field is all around us but we had to build a $10 billion LHC to find Higgs particle! To realize this super consciousness, the prescription is to meditate, calm down your mind completely and only then you would realize it after a lot of hard effort. The scriptures say you do not have to believe it. If you are willing to put in effort you will verify it. This is a big hang up. It is not something which, like the result of a scientific experiment, can be seen by a crowd on a TV monitor. It is one on one. This is an experience outside our sense perception. How do I know it is real? Well, honestly, I do not have any personal experience. But I believe it is possible because I know some yogis have achieved it and they describe the experience.
There is a beautiful interesting illustration in Vedas which Schrödinger mentions in his book on “what is life”. The question is why consciousness looks similar when our bodies look different. The answer in Vedas is that the source of consciousness is outside. We are merely reflecting it as multiple mirrors would reflect a single object!
Then what about all these images and statues of hundreds of gods you see in a Hindu temple? The answer is: everyone is not equipped to understand Brahman in the pure form. One needs some advancement. Suppose you are a physics teacher who is discussing electricity-magnetism. Your discussion depends on whether the students are in a primary school, high school, undergraduate program, graduate program or doing post-doctoral work. Similarly, everyone is not at the same spiritual level. The suggestion is that, if it is too difficult for you to do meditation on the ultimate consciousness, it is OK to worship God in whatever deity form you are comfortable with. This gave rise to a concept of large number of different forms of God (Avatars or incarnations) in whom you can find solace and get guidance. Over thousands of years a number of mythological stories also came up. Faithful believe that these deities are incarnations of God who came to Earth in specific forms to achieve some purpose, typically to destroy evil and establish goodness. They may exist in a realm which is not directly accessible to our senses. Usually there are moral lessons also associated with Avatars. People may have their favorite deities to worship. The faith evolved over several thousand years as a kind of cafeteria system. You worship a deity depending on your comfort level and ability. Usually one’s upbringing also plays a role. In the end it does not make any difference whom you worship. Everyone realizes what the icons represent symbolically. One strong point of Hinduism is the tolerance or (better) acceptance of different viewpoints. The belief is that there are thousand paths to realize God and everyone can choose his/her own path. Some followers believe in miracles but not too strongly to challenge science! It is well known and even scientifically established that faith does work wonders and there is a close connection between body and mind.In my personal case, I find association with the temple activities very enriching. Not only that there is no anti-science talk, but also the prevalent view is that most or all activities are compatible with science. It does help that Hinduism is flexible and non-rigid. So I can continue my interest in learning and teaching physics and learn about metaphysics as part of religion too. One point I should emphasize to Western readers: in Hinduism, philosophy, metaphysics and religious ritual practice are all mixed together. We think this is a strength rather than weakness. In a typical Hindu temple, you will find rituals going on all the time, together with philosophical talks. Rituals are prescribed for an average person because, at least for that time period he/she is engaged in thinking about God instead of mundane affairs of life and that would lead to cleansing of mind and get inspiration to lead a good life. Personally, I prefer philosophical, metaphysical discourses to rituals, but participating in rituals is also fine with me.
As in other religions, Hinduism has commandments for leading a good life e.g., speaking truth, non-violence, love, compassion, ethics, morality etc. Hinduism believes that whatever one does, has consequences as a Karmic relationship. This would be similar to the law of action and reaction in physics. Admittedly, here, the mechanism for consequences remains unknown. But the belief is that one can wipe out bad Karmas with good Karmas. This may take several births. So Hinduism firmly believes in reincarnation, i.e. everyone has a soul (called Atman) which migrates from one body to another on death. Ultimately when one is completely free from Karmic bondage, he/she gets liberation called Moksha or Nirvana. Obviously, there is no scientific or material proof of these beliefs.
Now let us consider two main issues in which some Westerners see conflict with science: age of Universe and theory of evolution. On both of these issues, the Hindu sages got approximately correct ideas in agreement with science. Just by thought processes they realized that universe must be billions of years old, as noted by Carl Sagan in his book on cosmos. The other realization was that there must be some connection between animals and human beings. If human beings have souls, then animals too have souls. That gave rise to mythological stories that God came to Earth in the form of first sea animals, then land animals and then human beings. These are ten Avatars of god Vishnu.
How about origin of universe? Of course one cannot say that the ancient sages’ knowledge was anywhere comparable to the current knowledge. But just see the astonishing description of origin from a scripture known as Vayupuran:
“In the beginning, there was nothing in the universe. The Brahman (the divine essence) alone was everywhere. The Brahman had neither color nor scent; it could not be felt or touched. It had no origin, no beginning or no end. The Brahman was constant and it was the origin of everything that was destined to be in the universe and the universe was shrouded in darkness.”Interesting! It was dark because visible light was not created yet!! In all Hindu scriptures, multiverse and cycles of creation and destruction of universe lasting billions and trillions of years are frequently mentioned.
Another excerpt from Vedas:
“The universe is brought about by the collapse of fullness in the transcendental field in which reside all the laws of nature responsible for the creation of the entire manifest universe. How is the transcendental level functioning? It is functioning from its unbounded nature to point to itself. He who does not know that initial pure consciousness state, ultimate reality, what can the laws of nature accomplish for him? He who knows it, remains established in evenness, unity, wholeness of life”.Since Brahman was by itself, it is clear that it interacted with itself i.e. self-referral (like inflaton!!!) and eventually manifested in every particle of the universe. It is a very interesting parallel with modern cosmology. Strictly speaking the word “manifestation” rather than “creation” is used in Vedic cosmology with a subtle meaning.
Now let us examine a frequent argument that science is based on logic and reason while religion is based strictly on faith. Well, our everyday logic and intuition are based on our life experiences with the world at the classical level. Modern physics has demolished this argument. If you say that only thing physics should care for, is develop mathematically consistent models, (no matter how bizarre they appear to our intuition) and try to see if they are in agreement with experiments, then you are perfectly ok. In a sense, I agree with Luboš that as far as science is concerned, there is no need to look at the meaning of models. But the moment you look for meaning of the equations you get into mess (metaphysical if you will). As everyone on this blog knows, the world is made out of fuzzy wavelike dynamic stuff and not solid rigid objects we see around. The particles are in some sense both here and there at the same time and are described by a wave function, a superposition of seemingly contradictory properties. This closely parallels description of Brahman in Hindu scriptures
“It moves and it moves not; it is far and it is near; it is within all this and it is also outside all this.”The ultimate shock of quantum mechanics, for visualization in terms of our everyday life, came with Bell’s theorem and corresponding experiments on entanglements. Luboš has written about this topic because of its importance. One has to choose between locality and reality. I think most physicists choose to keep locality to save theory of relativity at the cost of reality i.e. the particles are believed to be in some kind of suspended state devoid of any specific properties until they are observed. It is well known that Einstein did not like this. Another basic finding of quantum theory is the involvement of the observer in the observed things. It is impossible to separate the effect of the measuring apparatus from the object measured. Detachment of the two is just not possible. As John Wheeler said “universe is indeed participatory!” Max Planck regarded consciousness as fundamental and matter as derivative from consciousness. At one time Wigner expressed his view that consciousness creates collapse of wave function. There have been debates for some 90 years about interpretation of quantum mechanics without any resolution in sight. Ideas about the entanglement of the observer and the object of observation are also emphasized in Upanishads. In the Hindu concept the observer (Brahman) is in the system itself and is time independent.
There is a similar situation with theory of relativity, namely relativity of time for different observers, curving of space-time by matter in its neighborhood and possible singularity at the big bang. This theory has again challenged our intuition. Here also ancient Hindu sages did not have any problem. In certain scripture, you can find a statement that 100,000 human years is equivalent to 1 second of divine time! They also talk about simultaneous visions of past, present and future and time travel!
The readers of this blog already know about leading physicists discussing a multi-dimensional world of string theory. Hardly anyone would say that it is intuitive. More recently, if BICEP2 experiment and its interpretation are verified, it would mean that our observable universe started with a size of smaller than a proton and grew by a factor of e80 or more by expansion of space. The conclusion is that our everyday logic just does not work in Modern Physics, although Mathematics works superbly.
I am not saying that arguments of modern cosmology and modern physics are on the same footing as the metaphysical thoughts about universe and God in Hindu scriptures, but it sure should make one stop for a moment and think about the ultimate nature of reality in the two pictures. Again, all these intriguing developments are fine if you do not insist on visualizing by our poor little brains! I would say that one should not require higher standards of our intuitive understanding for religion than for science!
My basic suggestion is that let us be modest. Although we can be proud of our achievement in understanding so much about the universe, just think for a moment. We are on a measly little planet bound to an average star in an average galaxy with more than 100 Billion stars. There are more than 100 Billion galaxies in our observable universe. There could be an infinite number of such universes. Our eyes and brains evolved in a specific manner on Earth. Both of these have limitations. For example, our eyes are only sensitive to visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum only. Thus it would be height of arrogance and even stupidity to assume that what we can find with our sense organs and understand with our brains is all there is to it in the universe. Although direct verification is hard at this point, it is not unreasonable to assume that there could be a world beyond our sensory perceptions.
The reader might say that all this sounds like new age pundits talking mysticism! Well it is but there may be an underlying subtle reality! A number of authors have written books comparing modern physics with metaphysics of East. There are mystical ideas floating around about quantum consciousness and unified field of consciousness. There is a Harvard trained theoretical physicist John Hagelin who is a professor of physics at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa. He has written mathematical equations for such fields (using Lagrangian formalism like a respectable conventional theoretical physics). While these attempts are fine, my feeling is that they are somewhat premature for theoretical physics. It is not clear how one can verify the solutions of these equations which can satisfy scientists. Then there are also serious scientific models by Penrose-Hameroff, Stapp and some others looking for quantum mechanical processes in our brain which could explain consciousness. As of now they are inconclusive and have not been widely accepted. The main issue is that, as yet, neuroscientists have not understood consciousness. It is not clear how far down some kind of primitive consciousness goes in the tree of life. Suggestion that there could be some presence of consciousness in non-living systems would be called metaphysical at best, although some argue that the quantum dynamics already resembles a kind of consciousness. So consciousness may be much more subtle than our brain functions, thought processes etc. But we have to travel a long way to theoretical physics if indeed these ideas work out. I just want the readers to be aware that such models could be part of reality whatever it turns out to be.
Although I do not wish to belabor the point, question of existence of God is similar to some statements in Gödel’s theorems. He has proved that within a mathematical system, there would always be some statements which cannot be proved or disproved.
To summarize: I am not saying that Hinduism is based on statements which have material, scientific proof. But at this point there is no direct contradiction with any facts which science can establish. Hinduism goes beyond a point where science stops. It has concentrated on inner (non-sensory) understanding of reality through methodology known as Yoga. In terms of our concepts of reality, it seems that a previously assumed rigid line between physics and metaphysics may be rapidly disappearing! Normally I stay on the physics side of the line. But some time I am not so sure!
I have described Hinduism in some detail but not Buddhism. Buddhism arose in India as an off-shoot of Hinduism but became a completely independent religion in several other Asian countries. It has many similarities with Hinduism and believes in Karmic consequences. The belief is that humans can achieve ultimate liberation (Nirvana) by following the rightful behavior recommended by Buddha. According to Buddha, explaining the concept of God would be very difficult; hence Buddha neither rejected nor accepted the existence of a creator deity.
Now I will make few remarks about religions in general. Personally I am comfortable with most religions at the commandments level. Most religions maintain that morality, ethics, love, compassion etc. are integral parts of good life. Religious people believe that these commandments came as revelations from God. Whether one believes in God or not, we have to accept that these are good principles for the society. Unfortunately, many people (believers and non-believers) do not follows them. While it is possible to be virtuous and spiritual without being religious, believers would have special reasons to follow these. I can sense an immediate response from the readers about some religious zealots who maintain that if you do not believe in their God, they would kill you. While this is true unfortunately (in a small number of cases) this is not that wide spread and we have to work to eliminate these tendencies by education. In addition, there are social problems of drugs, high crime rates, murders etc. for which religious institutions can play an important role. I do not have to remind this scientific readership that dangerous weapons of mass destruction created by science, namely nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, can bring an end to all human life and perhaps the entire life on this planet. Thus we have to find some way of living with each other in a peaceful manner. My suggestion is that religion if properly followed can play a useful role, without which there would be nothing to hang on.
Although the main focus of this blog is to inform the readers about Hinduism and its lack of conflict with science, I conclude with some general remarks about science and religion. I would say this to the general readership: debate about science and religion is not all black or white. There are many scientists who are believers. Some surveys indicate 30 to 50% of all scientists are believers to a certain extent. Some of these are high profile scientists, at least one Nobel Laureate in physics. They realize that there are some finer, subtle points about their particular religions. At the same time, scientists should protest against ideas of young Earth creationism, intelligent design and anti-evolution propaganda. In addition, they should insist that they are the ones who decide what to teach in science classes in schools and they should not let non-scientists dictate it. Europeans may find this funny but this simple issue is becoming important in U.S.! There are frequent court battles about whether teachers should teach creationism as part of a science class! I routinely write in our local newspaper on these issues. On the other hand, I do not care also for tirades against religion in which some prominent physicists and other scientists have engaged. I think science and religion can have a peaceful coexistence and can enrich human life. In a way I am calling for moderation and acceptance of importance of each other by both sides. Let us have a balanced view of science and religion.