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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.