Inadequacy of Science

Science versus religion is a popular topic in the written and visual media in India. However, I find there are two concerns here.

One is that, they always hail science as the silver bullet for all human problems. This is one of the myths that this article tries to address.

The second is that, they are almost always written keeping in mind the concepts of the Semitic religions in mind. When religion is considered from the Indian tradition’s point of view, there is not much conflict between the two. French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland says, “The true Vedantic spirit does not start out with a system of preconceived ideas. It possesses absolute liberty and unrivalled courage among religions with regard to the facts to be observed and the diverse hypotheses it has laid down for their coordination. Never having been hampered by a priestly order, each man has been entirely free to search wherever he pleased for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.” When this is the case, how can there be much conflict between science and religion? If at all there is a conflict, the solution will be to go back to the “true Vedantic spirit”. Today’s Hinduism is largely based on Vedanta. Surely there is a lot of scope in aligning it further towards the “true Vedantic spirit”.  The other articles in this website deal with that in detail.

This article tries to give the reader a glimpse of the limitations of science.

Morality

According to today’s science, the fundamental entity in this universe is only material. Everything is a product of matter and energy. Thoughts are the entirely the product of chemical and electrical activity in the physical brain. The sense of individuality is an illusion created by the brain. This implies that we do not have freewill. When freewill is not there, all concepts of morality, accountability and purpose in human life collapse. In an interview with the Hindu published on February 12, 2011 (http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/all-in-the-brain/article1230359.ece), neurologist Dr. V. S. Ramachandran says, “The ‘moral imperative’ and that humans are genuinely free rings true to me, though that’s the minority view among scientists. I don’t know how to mix that with my Science though.” Thus, contrary to popular belief, science is fatalistic. According to science, you as a person, if at all you exist as one, have no control over what you think or do.

It is only religions, which uphold the concepts of freewill, morality, accountability and purpose. Different religions describe morality in different ways, with the fundamental common tenets being truthfulness, kindness, sense control and non-covetousness.

Fulfillment

Every living being wants happiness. Happiness can be defined as a state which the person does not mind if it continues forever. It is a state of satisfaction and fulfillment. Science can give answers to various questions. It can give technology to make life safe and comfortable. But, science cannot give fulfillment. Science cannot give happiness.

Religion is the pursuit of absolute happiness. The goal defined by different religions like Heaven, Paradise, swarga, brahmaloka, moksha, nirvana, etc. are all nothing but description of a state of absolute happiness, colored by the culture. One can question the existence of the described entity. But the intent of the pursuit is always absolute happiness. What one person considers as happiness cannot and will not be the same as what another person considers so. So the details of the goals are different for different religions. And naturally the details of the path also are different. But, behind all these differences, “absolute happiness” is the common thread.

Fundamental Questions

The mind and the senses are limited. They have access to and can judge only finite properties of objects. They have no access to and cannot judge these three questions:

  1. Is there a substance behind the properties of objects? For example, beyond all the known properties of an electron – mass, charge, spin, volume, velocity, etc. – is there anything that remains? If there is anything, what is it? What is the relationship between the substance and the properties?
  2. Is there an ultimate subject, which is “me”? The entire world, my body and my mind are all objects of my perception or conception. Independent of all these, is there an “I”, the essential subject, which is different from all objects of the sense organs and mind, and which can never become an object of perception or conception? If “I” exist, who am I? What is my nature?
  3. Is there an infinite entity? If it exists, is it self-aware? What is its relationship with the insentient world and other sentient beings?

These questions cannot be answered by science, because the sense organs and the mind do not have access to this realm. So they are non-verifiable. Any set of answers to these questions, which satisfy two criteria – (1) they should be logically consistent among themselves and (2) they should not contradict with experience – can be considered plausible. We cannot decide one over the other.

Different religions are different ways to answer these questions, in a way that the followers can lead a moral life leading to fulfillment. As psychological support, a lot of mythology, legends, rituals and customs are weaved into the religions. Thus we have different religions. As long as a religion does not declare exclusivity and promotes morality as sine qua non, the religion can be accepted as a positive force. Science can never replace religion.

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2 Responses to Inadequacy of Science

  1. gokulmuthu says:

    There was a discussion on this article on facebook with a friend – Amuthan. Here is the transcript for the benefit of the readers.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, with all due respect, I completely disagree. I do not want to enter into a debate, but this topic is a serious one and I merely wish to express my views. I trust you will take my criticism in the right spirit.

    To start with, the inadequacy you point out seems to pertain to a rather narrow interpretation of science. In short, the scientific attitude is about being open to facts and being closed to unfalsifiable claims. There are a lot of important questions for which science doesn’t have an answer and the proper scietific attitude here is to be open to where valid evidence takes us and settle for nothing less. In particular, ‘I don’t know’ is a much preferred answer to ‘There is no answer at the moment, so let me assume a particular set of claims without regard to whether they are true or not’. Thus science teaches us to overcome the fear of the unknown and helps us deal with our ignorance in the most rational way. It also follows that being agnostic is the inevitable consequence of holding fast to the scientiic spirit. And a life based on rigorous reasoning in conformity with valid scientific evidence, an agnostic attitude towards what is unknown and an innocent, sincere and unflinching quest to seek the truth of ourselves and the universe we live in can be extremely fulfilling on its own. From this point of view, religion is quite irrelevant and worse, it is fundamentally opposed to the open attitude of science.

    Regarding morality, it is true that science cannot provide direct answers to many questions, though a lot of interesting ideas have been put forth based on an understanding of our evolutionary past. But the crucial point here is that religion, contrary to what is normally assumed, does not provide any help in this matter at all. It merely clouds our reasoning based on some absolute notions of rights and wrongs which are unquestionable in the final analysis. True morality has always been based on societal consensus. Sensible reasoning taking into account the sensitivities of individuals in a society where one lives in are sufficient to come up with a non-absolute but working theory of morality. Religion has historically played a vital role in elevating common sense notions of what is good for us to the status of absolute rights and wrongs, but its function has been more on enforcing them rather than helping us come up with them.

    You also raise many grand questions related to the self and our place in the universe. Assuming for the moment that these questions are well-posed, I don’t see how a belief in unverifiable claims can help in this matter. Even vedanta, which can be presented in a way that _appears_ quite rational, is fundamentally based on claims that are best not accepted until there is valid evidence to support them. I agree that some of the meditative introspections of vedanta are open-ended, but then what is really _religious_ about these? What I’m trying to say is that religion (including vedanta) doesn’t really answer any of these questions, but only provides a nice story where everything fits, its just a reassuring illusion.

    I understand that religion might be necessary for many people to have a sense of purpose to their life. But then there is nothing absolute about it – its just a set of claims people believe in to the point of identifying themselves with those beliefs. Its a set of beliefs without which _some_ people are not able to handle questions on morality, a set of beliefs without which _some_ people are lost and find no meaning life. But these are just personal shortcomings. There is nothing absolute about religion and there is certainly nothing lost if one ignores it completely.

    In summary, there is nothing inadequate with the scientific spirit if one understands it in the right sense. And in such an understanding, religion becomes trivially irrelevant.

    Sorry for the long reply, but as I said in the beginning, the reason I’m writing this is to merely point out to you that it is entirely possible to live an enriching and compassionate life that is fulfilling and beautiful in every sense possible, with the scientific spirit alone.

    Gokulmuthu Narayanaswamy: Thanks, Amuthan, for giving your perspective. Let me list out your main points:
    1. Science is not restricted to what it works on. It includes its methodology also.
    2. Being agnostic on nonverifiable claims is better.
    3. Vedanta gives answers that _appear_ rational.
    4. Even where Vedanta leaves things open-ended, what is _religious_ about it.
    5. Not being able to handle questions on morality without assuming some answers to the fundamental questions is a personal shortcoming.

    Before I attempt to answer your questions, I want to make it clear that, in the Indian context, philosophy, religion and spirituality are not different from each other. They support each other closely. So it is not possible for a person to seriously pursue one of them without pursuing the others.

    Here are my views on your points:
    1. Yes. Science is accepted in all the domains other than that which are non-verifiable. Even in the case of the nonverifiables, keeping the sastra as the pramana, the scientific reason and logic is fully used. So, the domain of science and religion are different. So, there cannot be any conflict between them.

    2. If the nonverifiable entities are not related to everyday life, they can be ignored and one can be an agnostic. But, when the nonverifiables are about basic everyday things like freewill, morality, happiness, existence, etc., any thinking person would start worrying about them sooner or later.

    3. Vedanta does not claim to be rational about nonverifiables. Vedanta takes the Vedas as pramana for them. Vedanta only tries to be rational where it is possible to be rational. Vedanta is very clear about this.

    4. Religion, philosophy and spirituality are not different from each other, in the Indian context. The meanings of these words in the Western context should not be taken. If you want to use the proper word, darshana or adhyaatma vidya are better alternatives. So, meditation and swadhyaya are part of religion.

    5. If a person is not serious enough to dig into the depths of things, he can be satisfied with the non-existing foundation of morality based on materialism. But any serious thinker needs to dig into the root of things. Unless a satisfactory logical model is arrived at, that connects all the dots in a coherent way, he will not stop. It is the lack of seriousness of purpose of the person that will make him stop short anything less than a comprehensive model. So, the shortcoming is not in the person who seeks the answers to the questions. The shortcoming is in the person who does not pursue deep enough.

    So, in short, my conviction is that, any thinking person cannot be satisfied with science in explaining the reality. Science is fine for the verifiable realm. But there is much more that exists than that. So I say science is inadequate.

    I am not in support of this or that religion. Any system of thought that gives a consistent set of answers to the fundamental questions, in a way to promote happiness, morality and love in people, is acceptable. There need not be only a single set of answers to the nonverifiables. There can be any number of sets of answers which satisfy these conditions. But, they cannot be left unanswered. Human life cannot be meaningful without the answers to these questions.

    Other than religion, there has rarely been any system that has done these:
    1. Made a person totally immune to the ups and downs of life, such that he can be cheerful and motivated in any situation in life.
    2. Made a person ready to even give up even his life and honor to stick to satya and ahimsa.
    3. Made a person love everyone in this world without distinction, more than himself.
    It is true that religion has been misused a lot, just like every other system in this world. That does not invalidate the true spirit of religion. Most of the great human beings that the world has seen have been deeply religious people in its true sense. There have been some exceptions, and the exceptions, being exceptions, only highlight the general rule.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, I’m glad you are sticking to the traditional advaita view; that makes it a lot easier for me to precisely address your viewpoint. At the outset, the pramAnatva of the vedas, which is crucial in establishing both ontological claims like brahmAtmaikya, jagat-mithyAtva etc. and in establishing ethical norms in the more mundane level, has nothing more to it than an act of faith. Its just an a-rational option one can choose. If one wears the thinking cap and takes it to its logical conclusion, this choice is arbitrary and all assurance and answers it provides are just convenient fictions, not _real_ solutions. So the inadequacy of vedanta/religion to provide any _real_ help should be obvious.

    It is again incorrect, IMHO, to reduce science to materialism or fatalism and conveniently place vedanta/religion into the complementary space where we don’t have much idea of what is true what is not. This is nothing more than a restatement of the god-of-the-gaps argument. Let me address this in more detail: science of the 18th century was materialistic; science as we understand it today is not. Without getting into the world of quantum mechanics where the notion of a material is at best fuzzy, science even at the macroscopic scale deals routinely with entities like electromagnetic fields which are not material at all. So it is simply incorrect to label science as materialistic; science describes phenomena in the best possible way based on evidence and it turns out that _some_ aspects of science are materialistic and some are not. Equating science to fatalism is again based on a Newtonian understanding of world where everything is precise, deterministic and time and space are absolute. This is simply not the world we live in as quantum mechanics and relativity have taught us. Leaving physical phenomena for the moment, we are literally giant ignoramuses when it comes to understanding mental phenomena like qualia or consciousness or even brain activity entirely. Considering the amount of facts we don’t know about these phenomena, it is not correct to conclude that science denies free will or that science is fatalistic. We simply don’t have enough data to build a falsifiable scientific theory of the mind at the moment. So the proper scientific attitude is to be open and not to conclude prematurely. Having made that clarification on misinterpretations of science, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that an arbitrary choice to believe in a set of unprovable assertions (read religion) is going to answer questions where science currently doesn’t have any answers. It doesn’t matter if it is as crude as the semitic religions or as refined as vedanta or buddhism; they all boil down to acts of faith in the final analysis. So religion only provides an illusion that it answers. How can any serious thinker who digs into the roots of things accept an arbitrary choice as leading to a true understanding of mental and physical phenomena?

    If I understand your argument correctly, you seem to suggest that it is impossible to have rational views on subjects like free will, morality, happiness, existence without recourse to religion. I fail to see why this must be true. It is entirely possible to have a non-absolute but working theory of morality, free-will etc. based on both the science we know so far _and_ rational consensus. One just has to view morality as norms to be developed in social groups with complex interactions. This is not a trivial task at all, but bringing in an absolutist viewpoint like religion can only make things worse (as history has shown quite repeatedly). Let me reiterate that religion does _NOT_ provide any help in this matter. It just prescribes certain rules. There is no reason to suppose that they are the optimal solution (they are actually bad solutions in some cases).

    I agree that every serious thinker would be plagued by vexing questions on who we are and what this universe is. But do you think accepting a set of views that provide emotional comfort, but whose validity is contingent on a random choice in the final analysis, is sensible or adequate or an explanation at all? The inevitable answer is NO. As I mentioned earlier, science helps us directly deal with our ignorance and provides _real_ strength to make an unflinching pursuit to understand these all-important issues.

    Finally, it is not true that a scientific attitude cannot help in developing emotional maturity to handle the ups and downs of life. In fact the crucial qualities you need to do science are dedication to the truth, intellectual honesty and patience to pierce through the immense veils of ignorance that cover the truth. Regarding the other issues you raised like adhering to ahimsa etc., even assuming for the moment that these are inherently and absolutely good deeds, there are many interesting candidates for explaining altruistic and compassionate behaviour based on evolutionary biology. As I mentioned in the previous reply, religion only elevates some actions to absolute rights and wrongs. But it is actually people who came up with these rules and it is actually social consensus and individual survival at work behind the scenes. What we need is a relative and working theory of morality, which is definitely possible without religion. And this has nothing to do with materialism and materialism cannot be equated to science. While on this, let me draw attention to the fact that we are the only known living creatures even in the tiny speck of the universe we call the milky way. To talk of absolute morality to this temporary evolutionary accident is being egocentric to the core (Ergo, science helps you break free of your ego too!)

    Let me reiterate that science and the scientific spirit are entirely adequate. It is religion that is actually not adequate. There is no reason to suppose that it provides anything more than emotional comfort and reassuring all-encompassing solutions (read illusions).

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Btw, I don’t have any problem if someone chooses to follow vedanta or some other religion. My entire disagreement is when you say that religion is necessary, that science is inadequate and that religion should be used to decide on morality.

    Gokulmuthu Narayanaswamy: Hi Amuthan, thanks again for taking the time to put your points across.

    I see that your points can be highlighted into these:
    1. Choice of Advaita’s assumptions is arbitrary
    2. Today’s science is not materialistic
    3. Religion’s views on morality are not rational
    4. Working theory of morality is possible without religion
    5. Science is adequate. Religion is inadequate.

    Let me address them one by one.

    1. I agree that the choice of Vedanta’s assumptions is arbitrary. It takes Veda as the pramana, which is an act of faith, and which can be challenged. However, given that the subject is nonverifiable, one or the other assumption has to be made. For example, “Does freewill exist?” is a nonverifiable question. One has to take the position of “yes” or “no”. In the relative level, Vedanta takes the answer “yes” and builds up on that. At the absolute level comes the question of “what is the fundamental entity?”. Something has to be taken – matter, mind or Consciousness. Science takes “matter” as the answer. This is also nonverifiable. I guess, to my understanding, Buddhism takes “mind” as the answer. Advaita takes “Consciousness” as the answer. Whatever is taken as the assumption, the rest of the world has to be “evolved” out of it. Science calls it “emergence”. Advaita calls it “maya”. Whichever system you take, “arbitrary” choices have to be made. There is no other way.

    2. When I say science is materialistic, it includes all kinds of matter, field, waves, quarks and leptons, fermions and bosons. In Vedantic terms – “acetana vastu”. In terms of Western Philosophy, science is based on “materialistic monism”. My thoughts are considered as wholly the product of chemical and electrical (if you want to include Penrose, even quantum) activity in the matter that makes up my physical brain. Thus thoughts are a product of matter. When this is the case, where is the scope for “freewill”? Being non-deterministic is not sufficient for freewill. There should be an entity which is not a part, product or property of matter, which weilds the freewill. Otherwise the “will” is not “free”. Thus, as per today’s science, there is no place for freewill. And, it is also possible that freewill not being there is the truth. But, then we will have a lot of other problems in sociology. The entire human society is based on freewill. All concepts of accountability, purpose and morality are based on freewill. Science does not accept the possibility of an independant non-material entity, which is necessary for the concept of freewill. So, science is fatalistic. By “fatalistic” I do not mean deterministic or predictable. I mean, “I am not responsible for my thoughts and actions.” According to science, there is no independent ‘I’ which is not a part or product or property of matter.

    3. I agree to your statement that “One just has to view morality as norms to be developed in social groups with complex interactions.” That is why I say that science is inadequate. All morality is based on (1) the Golden Rule – “aatmaupamyena sarvatra samam pashyati yo arjuna, sukham vaa yadi vaa dukham sa yogi paramam matam”. Do unto other what you want others to do unto you. Don’t do to others what you do not want others to do to you. (2) Law of Karma – “you only reap as you sow”. Both these are based on freewill. Law of Karma is just the other side of freewill. Unless there is a reliable Law to operate against, freewill will be useless. This is all that religion says. The rest are details, which are context sensitive. As I have already told you, do not restrict religions only to a set of do’s and don’ts. They are not the core of religion. Religion is all about principles like the concept of freewill, the Golden Rule, Law of Karma, etc. Based on these, using logic, all the morality has to be deduced. Except for these nonverifiable entities (where, anyway you do not have any logic to choose), all the rest have to be worked out using logic. I call this as religion. If you do not call this as religion, we are merely differing in terminology. May be we already concur on the essence.

    4. As pointed out above, when science cannot agree upon freewill, where is the question of morality? If at all you ignore this fact and still want to come up with a working theory of morality, it will be unfounded. You can as well start with a good foundation by assuming the vailidity of freewill. When you talk of morality, you need to first answer the question, “whose morality?” Without properly defining the person, how can you talk about accountability, morality, etc?

    5. I agree with you that “Religion is inadequate.” There is no problem there. All that religion does is that it suggests some assumptions to the nonverifiable questions, so that you can build a healthy individual and society based on it. Religion has no say on verifiable questions. That is the domain of science. My conviction is that “Science is also inadequate.”

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, thanks for your reply. I’ll reply to your views in the order you stated them:

    1. There is no reason to suppose that the question of whether freewill exists or not is unfalsifiable. As I mentioned earlier, we still don’t have any proper scientific theory of consciousness and until then there is no means to know if the question even makes sense. To give you an analogy, it was a popular and serious subject of discussion in the 18th and 19th century that a mysterious ‘life’ permeated organic substances in contrast to inorganic molecules and that this was outside the domain of science. This discussion is trivially out of the box now and it doesn’t even make sense to talk about it. I’m not suggesting that questions surrounding free-will will vanish similarly, but it simply doesn’t make much sense to talk about free will from a scientific viewpoint since we don’t have the right theory in place. The proper scientific attitude is that we have to be open to where evidence takes us. On the other hand, if you say that you believe that freewill exists merely because you accept a certain religion on faith and that religion tells you that free will exists, do you think this makes any sense? Does it really help in understanding what free will is? A more sensible approach is to have a working hypothesis that freewill is an observed property of individuals and whose exact nature is not known, but whose properties can be subject to analysis as is done in the social sciences. It is again a mistake to assert that science and religion have equally valid takes on the ontological status of these phenomena. In religion you conclude what the answer is and just label the subject as unverifiable. In science we are open to understanding what it truly is and don’t conclude before we have definitive evidence or classify it as unverifiable before we have solid reasons to do so. Science and religion are fundamentally opposed in this sense. There is no question of any equivalence or complementary existence. Science seeks truth. Religion imposes certain ideas as the truth. These are not the same.

    2. Your view again seems to be a misinterpretation of science. We just don’t have any rigorous scientific theory of consciousess of the mind at the moment. So it is unscientific to make any absolute claim about subjective phenomena like qualia, awareness, free-will etc. In fact reducing to qualia to mere brain activity is not a scientific view, its at best an educated guess. We still have a long way to go to truly understand what they are. I fail to see how believing in an arbitrary set of ideas (religion) is going to give valid answers to real phenomena like the nature of free will. Religion at best can give you an opinion about it that makes you feel good. If you like vedantic jargon, idam na vastu tantram, purusha tantram eva! In science it is impossible to accept a mere personal opinion as a fact of life. Your entire argument seems to hinge on the idea that just because we don’t understand whats really the case, lets just shelve it as unverifiable and accept all possible religious views as equally probable alternatives. This sounds like a philosophy of ignorance. Such a view is entirely unscientific and worse, discourages an active and sincere pursuit to seek the truth behind these important enigmas. Let me reiterate that there is no rigorous scientific argument to accept or deny freewill. Our understanding of neuroscience is not mature enough to even address these questions. This being the case, it is quite incorrect to assume that science is fatalistic or that it is based on materialistic monism etc. This confuses the scientific spirit with certain narrow interpretations of science.

    3. The quotes you give only highlight what I have said earlier. Religion has merely upgraded what is known through common sense and societal consensus as morality to the status of ontological truths. We don’t need religion to come up with a moral code. We have very strong evolutionary reasons to understand why we feel compassionate and why we need social coherence and why the golden rule could just be a consequence of mirror neuron activity. Morality can be entirely derived based on a rational debate. Religion only complicates the matter by providing an opinion which is unquestionable. Whats the point?

    4. Absolute morality is a convenient myth that religion has created. In practice morality is a set of constraints on how we behave to maximize individual and collective survival as a species. Accountability, morality, freewill and other related issues arise because of our complex social interactions and one can derive sound constraints based entirely on rational consensus.

    5. I think your reply here summarizes the fundamental problem. Why are you so eager to conclude that subjects like consciousness are non-verifiable and cannot be studied using science? This is a serious threat to the very spirit of science that yearns for the truth. In science we care about what is true. It so happens that all the phenomena that we have understood so far don’t provide any insight into the nature of subjective phenomena. This doesn’t mean that we can’t study it using science. It only means that we need to keep pushing ourselves to seek a rigorous understanding of these phenomena and never give up and accept arbitrary ideas as a solution. If hypothetically there arises strong evidence that the subjective phenomena are caused by non-material entities which can nevertheless be studied rigorously, science would accordingly expand its views to accommodate them just as it expanded itself from a purely mechanistic view of the world to embrace non-material electromagnetic fields after Maxwell established a rigorous theory to understand them. (That was just the beginning; the expansion of science is truly crazy after the 20th century.) I understand that questions about consciousness and the self are of extreme importance, but will an answer based on faith provide permanent assurance to a mind capable of critical thinking? Obviously No! Science has not provided answers to these yet, but the beauty of science is that it gives us the maturity to seek it against all odds and settle for nothing less than the actual truth. Isn’t this more noble? Isn’t this more wonderful?

    In short, science is about seeking the truth. Religion is the exact opposite, inspite of its grand claims. The moment you assume that certain subjects are unverifiable and outside the domain of science and hence require recourse to an arbitrary faith, you immediately embrace the path that leads away from the truth. Why conclude so hastily just because we don’t have answers? Besides, we can always come up with a relative and working theory of morality and free-will as aspects of social dynamics entirely through a rational debate. This is a much better alternative to assuming that the opinions of a few dictate what is right and what is not. It looks like the primary problem with your analysis is a failure to recognize the difference between a mere opinion and a reasoned view in conformity with the scientific spirit on subjects for which we don’t have a scientific understanding, and the subsequent naive and erroneous generalization to include every opinion as a valid alternative to a scientifically inspired view; the god-of-the-gaps argument essentially.

    Gokulmuthu Narayanaswamy: Hi Amuthan,

    You mentioned, “it simply doesn’t make much sense to talk about free will from a scientific viewpoint since we don’t have the right theory in place”. That is exactly what I am trying to tell you: “Science is inadequate.”

    You mentioned, “On the other hand, if you say that you believe that freewill exists merely because you accept a certain religion on faith and that religion tells you that free will exists, do you think this makes any sense? Does it really help in understanding what free will is?”

    I do not say freewill exists because a certain religious faith says so. The faith merely considers freewill as a reasonable assumption and has worked out thoroughly the corollaries of accepting freewill. Concepts like Law of Karma and rebirth are the logical consequences of accepting freewill. They are not primary propositions. The only primary proposition is the concept of freewill. And, this is also taken as the working assumption because the converse of it does not lead us anywhere. And, we cannot avoid taking an assumption here. This is so primary to human life and society that we cannot be fuzzy here. It is a nonverifiable assumption that has to be taken. Religion has just stated it boldly. Science just beats around the bush. [I regret this statement that I made without thinking. I withdraw this statement. I leave it here for the reader to be able to get the context of Amuthan’s rejoinder.]

    You mentioned, “Science seeks truth. Religion imposes certain ideas as the truth. These are not the same.” When something fundamental has been found to be nonverifiable, what should be next practical step? Look for possible options. Seeking the truth is possible only for verifiable things. For nonverifiable things, you need to take the best possible and most practical option as an assumption and proceed. Religion assumes certain ideas only for nonverifiables. Verifiables are entirely the domain of science.

    You mentioned, “We just don’t have any rigorous scientific theory of consciousess of the mind at the moment.” That again, is exactly what I am trying to tell you: “Science is inadequate.”

    You mentioned, “reducing to qualia to mere brain activity is not a scientific view”. I differ here. Can you please point to me one neuroscientist of repute who denies the primacy of matter? I have also quoted Dr.V.Ramachandran in the original article. Please take a relook.

    You mentioned, “Religion at best can give you an opinion about it that makes you feel good.” I would replace “feel good” with “pragmatic”.

    You mentioned, “it is quite incorrect to assume that science … is based on materialistic monism”. Can you please give me a reference which shows me that science is not based on materialistic monism? If you can point me to some scientists of repute who deny materialistic monism, or at least point to a possibility beyond materialistic monism, I will change my position with respect to science. My whole problem with science is this one point.

    You mentioned, “Why are you so eager to conclude that subjects like consciousness are non-verifiable and cannot be studied using science?” Let science continue to study them. Till then religion provides a working hypothesis for these. I agree that something which is considered nonverifiable now can become verifiable later. Till then “Science is inadequate”. You need to take some working assumptions for these nonverifiables and proceed further. That is what religions is all about. If any of the nonverifiable becomes verifiable by science, then that will move from the domain of religion into the domain of science.

    I guess our positions are clear to both of us:

    1. There are verifiables and there are (currently) nonverifiables.

    2. Verifiables clearly come under science. Science tries to bring the nonverifiables into verifiable domain. Till then we have to take up some working hypothesis for the nonverifiables and work out the logical implications. Some thumb rules have to be provided to society based on these logical implications. According to me, that is exactly what religion does. According to you, this need not be done by religion. Sociologists can do that. Still, I hold that it is best for religions to handle this. We cannot reach a concurrence beyond this.

    3. My claim is that science is based on material monism. You disagree here. My request to you is to get me references of some scientists of repute who at least accept the possibility of something beyond material monism. I would be very interested in that. I have tried a lot and could not get anyone.

    4. You have accepted that science has not concluded on several things so far, and has not decided on several things. That is what I mean by “inadequacy of science”. I would be very happy to see science proceed on these and progress to become more and more adequate. Till then you have to accept that science is inadequate. I am just using stronger words. You are using a softer words. I do not think we can proceed towards more congruence than this.

    So, you have one action item, which is more of a favour that I ask you, because I have tried looking for that and have not succeeded so far. My position is based on that. I just seek the truth. If you can show me that science looks beyond materialistic monism, I will be very happy at that. I will change by position on science. Not that it matters to science. It matters to me. Till then, I stand where I began.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, there are serious problems with your presentation of the scientific methodology. First, I’m not sure if you understand verfiability in the same sense of falsifiability as is done in science. Let me state it clearly to avoid any confusion: a statement is falsifiable if its truth value can be ascertained based on evidence. Thus a falsifiable statement can be definitively classified as true or false. This extends appropriately to scientific theories in general. The hallmark of the scientific approach is that non-falsifiable hypotheses are rejected right in the beginning. A non-falsifiable statement/theory has no place in science. This adherence to definitive knowledge, insistence on falsifiable theories, the sole vindication of a theory based on valid evidence alone and a complete intolerance to non-falsifiable generalizations/claims is what constitutes the scientific method. This extends mutatis mutandis to phenomena for which we don’t have a rigorous scientific understanding yet (like morality, freewill etc). This is what I mean by the scientific method and this is entirely adequate to help us live a fulfilling life. Btw, this should hopefully clear the misconception that science is inadequate just because we have gaps in our scientific understanding of the world. The scientific methodology is much larger in its reach and is entirely sufficient to help us come up with working hypotheses for all the issues you raised. I’ll address some of these below.

    The second objection to your argument is that you seem to think that science is based on materialistic monism. This is entirely false. Let me again spell out a few details to explain why. Science is _not_ an axiomatic enterprise like mathematics. The final vindication of a scientific theory lies in valid evidence and valid evidence alone. (Even a mathematically consistent theory that doesn’t have physical evidence is not considered science. This is why string theory is a beautiful mathematical theory, but not a scientific theory.) In the simplest sense, an axiom is a self-evident truth and this taken as a starting point of our investigation. What science has taught us is that almost all our intuitive ideas of reality are wrong! Its not surprising to understand why: our brains evolved to survive in an environment characterized by certain time and length scales. So when we try to use our naive common sense notion of how things are and examine actual evidence, we are in for a real shock. This is precisely why we need science. Our sense are so fragile and imperfect and our intuition is so ridiculously naive that we need the rigorous formalism of science to get a basic grip of reality. Science is also _not_ a speculative enterprise like philosophy which seeks to unify phenomena under a single grand idea. In science we do not start by assuming that such a unified framework exists. In science, we just observe phenomena (with due care to overcome the limited capacity of our senses and the possibility of errors in observation), formulate falsifiable theories and test their predictions against valid evidence. Science does _not_ in particular start of with ‘materialistic monism’ as a hypothesis. To make things precise, materialistic monism is a philosophical school that says that all phenomena ultimately reduce to a single material basis. And this is speculative philosophy, _NOT_ science. Science needs falsifiable and testable hypotheses. We know very well how to do this with physical entities we can measure, quantify and manipulate. It turns out that most of the phenomena around us are entirely explainable with the known physical laws and this has been so successful that an _informed guess_ made by most scientists is that all phenomena can be ultimately reduced to physical laws. But this is only an informed guess, not science itself. It is very important to recognize this subtle distinction. Philosophy on the other hand starts on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. It starts off assuming some grand generalization like materialistic monism (or any other -ism for that matter) and then tries to fit phenomena within this framework. This is not science at all (and this is the reason why philosophy got kicked out of the science departments So it is completely wrong to equate science with materialistic monism. The problem with philosophy and religion is that they discuss sweeping generalizations that are so vague, ambiguous and imprecise that you can fit in any random view in between and get away with it. Sadly, they tend to assume that such careless reasoning applies to science too Coming back to materialistic monism, the existence of the EM fields alone can be argued to show why it is false. Things get much worse for materialistic monism when we start talking about objects in the quantum scale. And it is hopelessly out of the box when we start wondering about dark matter and dark energy about which we have no clue at the moment. Science is totally game to deal with all these, philosophical speculations like materialistic monism aren’t.

    Incidentally, this should also explain why claims like qualia is reducible to brain activity is a non-scientific statement. It is an informed guess and most neuroscientists consider this to be likely, but no one I know (including VSR) states this reduction idea as _established_ scientific fact. Please understand that there is a huge difference between an established scientific theory, an informed scientific guess, a non-falsifiable axiomatic theory and all-encompassing speculative generalizations. These are very different things and the last two are completely alien to the scientific spirit.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: With this background in place, my argument is that a religious view of morality and allied speculations regarding freewill are alien to the scientific spirit for the simple reason that such speculations are non-falsifiable. They are just personal opinions (and sadly, not even informed scientific opinions!). This being the case, a much better alternative is to study morality and freewill based on the scientific spirit than force fit them to a particular religious views. As I mentioned earlier, it makes much more sense and is much more universal to study morality and free will as properties of individuals in complex social webs. It is beyond my wildest imagination how a working acceptance of freewill automatically implies the existence of rebirth, as you claim. This is a classic instance of why speculative philosophy is abhorred in science. What you are actually doing when you make such assertions is that you are making truth claims about biological entities after conveniently _assuming_ in the beginning that this is outside the domain of science. My question is very simple: will all these non-falsifiable speculations (which hence irrational from a scientific point of view) lead to any understanding of the truth? If you will excuse me to use some strong language, this is nothing more than an insult to the noble endeavour of science, even if you didn’t exactly intend it to be so. I’m again not able to wrap my head about claims you make that science beats around the bush and that religion makes bold claims. Gomu, you’ve seriously got to be kidding me! In science we try to be as precise as possible about what we talk and we humbly accept our ignorance when we don’t have answers and struggle hard to understand reality. Here you come with a grand generalization (which in the final analysis is just a non-falsifiable personal opinion) and then say that you’re making a _bold_ claim I’m very sorry Gomu, this is not being bold or strong, its just a boisterous statement of one’s fear to seek the truth and one’s impatience to wait until we have a proper understanding of how things really are and one’s weakness to succumb to emotional dilemmas in preference to getting to the roots of the matter. There is nothing noble or strong about religious generalizations. The only thing grand about it is the magnitude of the delusions it infests in credulous minds and its remarkable ability to make people stop thinking and/or irrationally constrain their views on certain phenomena (like consciousness for instance). In plain terms, its an annoying nuisance as far as science is concerned.

    People make various choices in life and they are entirely free to do so. I don’t have any problem if you choose to follow vedanta and if you get emotional satisfaction out of it. But please don’t elevate your personal opinions to the status of ontological facts. Please understanding that you are actually insulting science – the most wonderful human pursuit to find truth – when yo do so, even if you don’t have such explicit intentions; this is what it boils down to. Please also don’t readily assume that certain things like consciousness are non-verifiable and thereafter force fit mere personal choices to a universal moral codes and statements about freewill that are applicable to everyone. This does not make any sense and does not lead to any progress whatsoever.

    I suppose I have given you sufficient reasons why the scientific method is adequate and why a religious approach is non-scientific.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, not sure if you have seen this, but there are some interesting points made here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D47J2aNPbJo I don’t endorse all of Sam Harris’ views and this talk is primarily set in the context of western religions, but his ideas on morality and religion are spot on and you can extend this to Indian religions too.

    Gokulmuthu Narayanaswamy: Thanks Amuthan and Ravi, for summarizing the whole discussion.

    Though coming from a traditional Vedanta background, I still do not take the pramana stature of the Vedas without working out the implications of the other options. And, I take even the assumptions for the nonverifiables only as a tentative working model, which can always be revised as and when required. As the questions are fundamental, I feel that taking a tentative working model is more pragmatic. And, I see that science also takes such a step only, though in a different direction. I have explained all these sufficiently.

    The difference that this discussion has made in me is that, I have first heard from a person like Amuthan (whom I have great respect for) that science is open to a possibility of a world view which is not wholly material (in “material”, I include EM waves, etc. Amutham seems to have missed this point in my earlier reply.) I am looking forward to a time when science has resolved many of the nonverifiables today, so that we have lesser assumptions to make.

    Other than this, I do not see any change in my position.

    Thanks for the video and the link. I will go through them.

    Amuthan Arunkumar: Gomu, thanks for presenting your views. I’m genuinely not convinced about your claims that the scientific view is inadequate. I don’t think it is a mere difference of opinion at work here, but I don’t know how to express this without repeating what I’ve said earlier. My experience with debates have taught me that when this point is reached, it is usually a good time to stop. I appreciate your healthy and mature attitude towards this debate and your patient replies.Thanks once again for this lively discussion; I enjoyed being a part of it 🙂

    Gokulmuthu Narayanaswamy: Yes, Amuthan. Once both the sides have understood the other’s position, it is time to stop. I enjoyed too. Learnt a lot. Thanks.

  2. Prasanna says:

    Above discussion is undoubtedly interesting. Academic discussions often never end. However, one may also think often on these lines.

    Human Intelligence being an independent entity is often looking for stability and happiness. In that regard, it has merely found two tracks or routes. It is just like 2 ways of going to an (imaginary) destination.

    One is Religion, which is the knowledge flowing from previous generations, which has to be accepted without questioning or when questioned it has no answer. Hence Religion is nothing but conditioning to a set of knowledge which becomes beliefs.

    Number Two is the Science, which is the knowledge collected by practical observations and reasoning. Though this knowledge is also accumulated and flowing down from generations, unlike religions it always remains universally applicable, provable and also replicable.

    Hence, to compare Science and Religion are like comparing apples and oranges. Except that they both are fruits, no more comparable qualities are there in them. It is however, essential to understand that Science is constantly growing, due to the observations of the dynamic intelligence, whereas Religions are stagnant.

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