On the Differing Perspectives on God of Physicists and Biologists

There is much truth in the statement that biologists and physicists look upon the world (in its deeper aspects) in somewhat different ways.

There are deep historical as well as epistemological reasons for this. But two broad conclusions we may draw from this fact of observation are that ultimately our statements about the world are interpretations, and that these interpretations are functions of our background, training, and cultural conditioning.

What science and objective inquiry try to accomplish, however inadequately, is to sort out these coloring factors from our appraisals, and come to as best an unencumbered-by-personal-constraints-as-possible set of conclusions as one possibly can.

In this context it is useful to recall what some historians of science have pointed out: In ancient Greek science there were three main paradigms of scientific inquiry:  the organic (Aristotle), the mechanistic (Archimedes), and the magical/mathematical (Pythagoras/Plato) traditions.

With the rise of modern science in the 17th century, these survived in varying degrees. The magical tradition became fully mathematical, the mechanistic became dominant in model-building theories, and the organic virtually died in the context of physics. Indeed, soon even biology abandoned its organic roots, and was brought into the mechanistic fold.

The mechanistic model came into conflict with the Church first because its clockwork world was no longer geocentric as was taught in the traditional cosmology of Aristotle et al. Next , the confrontation was because the mechanistic model stripped the human being of the traditional soul of Pythagoras, the Church, et al.

In our own times, physicists are concerned largely with the non-sentient world, and see therein absolutely no sign of anything that normal living beings possess. But they do know that the universe functions with uncanny subservience to immutable laws. In this context, many of them have little difficulty in  visualizing the universe as a whole as an entity functioning in accordance with some sort of an intelligent cosmic formula.

For biologists, on the other hand, it is all chemistry, and random mutations resulting in a variety of grown up amoebas, with little evidence that life forms were specifically created by a Cosmic Creator on the sixth day of the week.

This, as see it, is the primary difference between the physicist and the biologist when it comes to God-talk with respect to the universe: The physicist thinks of Intelligence, the biologist, of  the Creator. Intelligence is tied to logic, mathematics,  abstraction, law, and order, and is not incompatible with Physics or Science. The Creator brings to mind Scriptures, the Church, anthropomorphic God, etc., which it is difficult to reconcile with post-Galilean science

December 20, 2005

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Science and Politics

Science, in so far as it is a quest for rational understandings of the physical world, from quarks and leptons to double stars and dark matter, from big bang to black holes, can be chaste in its ivory tower of telescopes and microscopes, equations and explanations.

But, like any quest for and formulations of Truth, it can remain uncorrupt for only as long as its formulas and findings don’t affect the human condition adversely. If the impact is to increase physical comfort and cure disease, science is welcome with prizes and grants. But the moment scientific results begin to rattle our psychological security  by questioning the foundations of our deepest beliefs about this life and the next, or they become  threats to economic growth, drastically reduce bottom line profits, affect jobs for the masses, or may bring down a major industry, Science becomes suspect. Then, more comfortable modes of interpreting natural phenomena become urgent. Sadly, shamefully, but not surprisingly, some individual scientists are prepared to sell their science for tidy sums for erecting  alternate interpretations of collected data that would benefit the paymasters in the short run, even if they risk humanity’s long range interests.

My fear is that barring discernable dangers of major magnitudes,  extinguishing not thousands but millions of lives, neither industries nor governments will halt their current activities and policies which, all said and done, do help in providing jobs for millions and  raise their standard of subsistence.

In the meanwhile, if some reports are true, radical opponents of the status quo have not flinched from resorting to actions and propaganda that involve lying, exaggerations, and distortions that they deem are appropriate and necessary for the “right cause.’

17, May 2017

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Goals of Education

All nations educate their their children and adults for a variety of purposes.

The most important visible reason they do this is to give the citizens the necessary skills to handle technology, manage government and business institutions, and help maintain the laws of the land. A modern nation without people who can do these will simply cannot function, no matter how rich its natural resources are.

However, the larger and other necessary goals of education should be:

  • To expand the mind’s horizons.
  • To enrich the student’s life with the knowledge of the wonders of the world as revealed by Science.
  • To instill in the student an appreciation for art and music, poetry and philosophy,
  • To encourage the student to respect all cultures of the human family.
  • To teach the student to weigh dispassionately the different sides of controversial issue, and to give freedom of expression for the opponent’s view.
  • To enable the student to honor all the non-hurtful dimensions of every religion of the human family.
  • To strive for social justice, economic fairness, and gender equality in his/her own country, and all over the world.
  • To develop compassion for the suffering, and think of ways in which he/she can help the less fortunate.
  • To make the student realize questions relating to the Ultimate are Grand Mysteries which should provoke awe and humility in us, rather than dogmatic certainty as to their correct answers.

20 April 2017

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Some Thoughts on God in Hinduism

A  key message of Hinduism is that unlike mathematics and argumentation, lived life as well as visions of the Unknown are not built in a framework of rigid rationality, but in an elastic web of contradictions and complementarities. One who has grown up in Hindu culture is thus able to withstand contradictions in one’s own belief-system and behavior more easily that people brought up in many other cultures. This is what enables Hindus to pay respects to all gods, not just Hindu, but Christian and Jewish, Islamic and whatever. This is why Hindu atheists can still sing bhajan songs, prostrate before an icon of  Ganesh, and invoke Rama and Krishna freely: a capacity that people of few other groups enjoy.
This has advantages as well as disadvantages. The disadvantage is that it can drive your opponent nuts when you argue about these matters. It also allows many Hindus to tolerate the most absurd and silly superstitions. It is okay to decide on the time for a rocket launch on the basic of astrology. But it also makes us morally ambivalent, sometimes incapable of taking a firm stance on issues. The advantage is that Hindus can be more tolerant of the nonsensical beliefs of other groups than is possible for most people
Elusive Divinity is given form and substance through Puranic im­agery, If gods are endowed with many arms and heads, it is to re­mind us of divine omnipotence; if monkeys and serpents, rivers and mountains are worshipped, it is to affirm the omnipresence of the divine principle. Indeed, in the Hindu vision, every aspect of the world is an expression of the Cosmic undercurrent. As the mystic poet sees the world in a grain of sand, the religious seeker discovers god in every atom of the physical world. If it is religious awakening to see god in everything, the Hindu framework goads us to that wisdom. That is why, paraphrasing the Vedic aphorism, we may say, God is one, the Puranas call it by various names.
There is also much esoteric meaning in the forms and faces, sub­tle symbolism in the genesis and doings of Hindu gods. In the Puranic tales and epic allusions it is suggested again and again that divinity is by definition that which transcends the constraints of space and time, of causality and conservation, even of ethical categories. A god may be good and bad, beautiful and ugly, merciful and cruel, majestically grand and dwarfishly small, handsome as a hero and plain as a tortoise. Brahma grants boons to the deserving, yet schemes to deprive a miscreant of what he has won. Vishnu is majestic and manly, but he also becomes gynomorphic as Mohini. Siva is austere and ascetic, yet lusts for Parvati, he is supremely continent and erotical­ly virile.  Puranic gods love and hate one another, collaborate and com­pete, cooperate and are in conflict.
Mutual incompatibilities arise from our narrow perspectives. But in the cosmic grandeur they all dissolve. The same vast sky can be pitch black at night and gloriously bright at noon. We can float on the ocean, and also sink to its dark depths.
Such are the inspirations behind the panoramic pantheon of Hin­duism. In our own times, when physicists wonder how the same elec­tron can be both particle and wave, the ancient Hindu insight comes in handy to resolve the paradox. The world results, not from con­tradictions, but from complementarities. There are no absolutes. Our descriptions depend on our reference system. Two valued logic is useful and appropriate in certain contexts, but they are too restricted in the vision of the infinite.
With all that, when a devout Hindu thinks of God, it is a faceless, ornament-less, vahana-less, invisible personage that comes to mind. The God one invokes in silent prayer or closed-eye meditation is often not one of the Puranic deities, nor even the all-too-abstract Brahman, but a very real personal God who has no features, nor forms. If the Puranic gods are like integers from one to infinity, the personal God of the practicing Hindu is like the symbol x in algebra         which could stand for anything, yet is not anything in particular. This God is refer­red to as bhagvaan.
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CNN’s broadcast (Sunday March 5, 2017) on Hinduism by a so-called religious scholar did disservice to the cause of peace and understanding. With obviously no knowledge of Sanskrit or Tamil, he had the gall to report on Hinduism to a public already naive about Non-Christian religions, and can hardly distinguish a Sikh from a Muslim, at a time when anti-immigrant passions are running high,  prompted largely by the extremists of the religion to which this supposed scholar is affiliated. His crass and callous snap shots of an enormously complex and multifaceted religion could be charitably interpreted as arising from superficial book knowledge, and in more sinister terms they can be interpreted as a wanton effort to ignite anti-Hindu  sentiments in the country.

The program was a downright affront to a great religious tradition which, unlike the tradition to which this interpreter of religion may be more familiar, preaches respect and reverence for all spiritual paths. India, with its overwhelming Hindu majority is home to millions of others from different faiths, and has been so for centuries.

The United Nations has thought it fit to include in its motto a quote from  a Hindu poet on humanism.   The scriptures of Hinduism are reckoned among the most poetic and philosophical in the world: from Schopenhauer to Emerson, and countless others, informed thinkers have paid homage to the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The deep insights of Hindu thinkers  into the ultimate nature of reality have found resonance in sophisticated modern physics: The CERN in Geneva has acknowledged this.

The CNN “expert” on Hinduism is obviously ignorant of all this. His expertise seems to be in projecting pictures that titillate the superficial, ill-informed, and perhaps malicious tourist. This show was regarded  as the height of public affront to a billion people. Whether President Trump’s characterization of CNN as a purveyor of fake-news was appropriate or not in the context in which it was made, it was certainly so in this case.

It is important to emphasize that humanity’s cultural legacy is vast. Every nation and group has created art and music, plays and poetry, science and philosophy, dance and delicacy. Thanks to the marvels of technology transfer of information has become much easier. Through our powerful modes of communication it is not impossible to educate the masses on whatever is grand and glorious in every culture and civilization, in every race and religion of  the human family. We have the resources to educate and  enlighten humanity as a whole. We can make people  better understand and appreciate  the cultural richness in all groups.

Contrary to the hopes and wishful dreams of humanists that is not what is happening. Instead, we seem to be heading towards a world of mutual hate and suspicion, devoid of scant respect for the traditions of others,  displaying  religious intolerance of the most abject kind. One reason is programs like this. It is most unfortunate that a respectable medium like CNN did not recognize the motives of this “scholar”.

We are at the threshold of an age of narrow nationalism and sectarian bigotry.   There are at least two reasons for this throw-back to religious intolerance. One is the inability or unwillingness of religious leaders to preach basic tolerance to their followers; the other is the disservice done by the media by focusing on what is wrong and grotesque in various faith systems. No religion is spotless but all religions have their nobler and uplifting aspects too. Responsible groups should know which to emphasize to  whom and when.

I raise my voice of protest not only as a member of the Hindu tradition, but equally as a member of the human family who is alarmed by the divisive trends that are poisoning the world today; and by the fact that a news-providing institution like CNN would air a program of this misleading kind. I can only hope that they will not ask an ignorant Hindu to interpret Islam to the American public.

8 March 2017

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Unhappy, let alone angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists.                                   – Dennis Prager

Secularism literally refers to that which is of this physical world, in contrast to what is of the religious and transcendental world. The word was introduced in England in the middle of the nineteenth century by the freethinker George Jacob Holyoake who gave public lectures on ideas that ran contrary to the mainstream religious worldview of the times. He was accused of blaspheme, and thrown into prison for six months as if to symbolize what one might expect in countries whose laws prescribe penalty for holding and expressing anti-religious views.

In essence, and in its original form, secularism maintained that efforts to solve humanity’s moral and societal problems should  be based on reason and rationality just as its practical problems are handled by the use of science. Thus secularism downplays, even rejects, appeals to the Almighty for solving humanity’s terrestrial predicaments, whether it be drought or deluge, earthquake or epidemic.

Already in the nineteenth century secularism had its opponents. For example, James Buchanan proclaimed in a book that pantheism, materialism, secularism, development, and natural laws were all atheism in camouflage. He foresaw that secularism was sowing the seeds for the extinction of the Christian church: a prediction that has been been partially realized  among  many  people who have been enlightened, intoxicated, corrupted or indoctrinated (depending on one’s perspective) by the results and remarkable successes of science in explaining and manipulating the physical world, and who have been disillusioned by the hurtful behavior of some so-called religious people and groups. By the close of the twentieth century Billy Graham said: “It is no secret that in New York during the last 30 years there has been a tragic exodus from the churches into materialism, secularism, and humanism.”

In today’s world harsh criticisms of secularism come also  from the Non-Western world on the grounds that, since it is associated with the modern scientific outlook, it is a creation of an exploiting and colonizing West, and therefore needs to be rejected. Secularism is thus seen as an undesirable import from Western culture from where other imports of material value, creature comforts, medicinal cures, and economic modes are freely and avidly aped and assimilated.

With all that, we live in an age that is both secular and religious. It is secular where the power and prestige of science have overshadowed the other dimensions of human culture to the point of marginalizing the ontological claims and explanatory models of traditional religions. It is religious in that vast numbers of people in a great many nations have been stirred up as never before to reaffirm their religious traditions and worldviews which have been diluted or debilitated by the onward march of science and secularist values.

Secularism continues to be a grave threat to religion in the Western Christian world where science and Enlightenment have taken deep roots. It is not as yet as much a threat in nations where theocracy is strong and supreme, and secular calls are condemned and punished as in earlier centuries in the Western world..

What is not always realized is that when  secularism is stifled, the mind-liberating potencies of science and Enlightenment become beyond the reach of people who have been denigrating science as inadequate, epistemically hegemonic, and arrogant in its appraisal of non-scientific modes for interpreting the world.

It must be emphasized that at the political level secularism accords equal rights to all its citizens  in their religious choice, not unlike the Vedic vision in the Hindu framework which allows for polyodosism: multiple paths for spiritual fulfillment. Moreover, in the secular framework the laws of the land are scrupulously independent of scriptural injunctions some of which are anachronistic and unconscionable to awakened minds. In these matters secularism  is perhaps the most civilized principle of government in all of history. It is far more just in any nation that has a multiethnic and multireligious citizenry.  In nations where secularism is  derided, the mind-set of blaspheme still lingers, in which the religion of the wielders of political power alone is proclaimed to be true, disallowing and castigating the religious expressions of others.

Secularism in the political sphere today is not rejection of religion, nor denial of religious rights. It is rather a framework in which every citizen can exercise one’s chosen mode of spiritual fulfillment, traditional or modern, theistic, pantheistic, or atheistic; where  laws will not be dictated by rules set forth in any particular holy book. The opposite of secularism today is not sacredism as it was once declared to be, but theocracy: a form of government under which people suffer under religious laws that might be appropriate for the darkness of medieval mindsets, but that strikes  those basking in the sunshine of freedom as suffocating in a sectarian smog.

It is true that the theoretical successes and practical benefits of science sometimes so seduce a people that they totalize all human experiences under a science that offers no guidance in a moral dilemma, sets no bounds on instinctive self-serving behavior, nor provides comfort and solace in times of emotional crisis. And in the name of law  and of separation of church and state, some secular atheists protest when believers pray or express their faith in God in public places, in however harmless a manner. Ridiculing, condemning, or constraining public religious expressions in the name of secularism achieves little more than causing emotional hurt to believers, and driving the disgruntled to religious extremism.

We are facing many challenges: diminution of resources, growing population,   deteriorating environment, and more. Now the wisdom in religious traditions can be of much help. Periodic meditation with wholesome thoughts could help us curb our more hurtful instincts. But it is equally important to curb the religious zeal that  can cause pain and persecution as it has been doing since ancient times.

It may not be in our best interest to try to snuff all religious dimensions of society and culture, though it is neither intellectually possible nor socially appropriate to continue with many aspects of the religious practices of our ancestors.  In a secular world, religions need to formulate worldviews and visions that are informed by the results of science and strengthened by the values that are prompted by the sages of the traditions.  Religions have to attend to the needs of the poor and the sick, as preached and practiced by Christ. They must reinstate the spirit of  the ethical values conveyed by the Ten Commandments. They must foster the compassion of the Buddha, the principle of non-injury of Mahavira, the egalitarian principles implicit in Islam and Sikhism. As in Hinduism,  religions must teach reverence for all religious modes. Religions ought to guide people to meaningful spiritual experiences which will elevate their thoughts and inspire them to helpful and productive behavior.

It is for humanity’s good when religious leaders come together in inter-faith embrace and  proclaim with conviction that even while maintaining loyalty to one’s own religion, one must recognize that there is much that is good and worthy of respect in other systems as well. It is important to strive to  transform religious fervor and the inter-religious rancor that have grown over the centuries into sublime principles of love, assistance, and mutual respect. The committed collaboration of scientifically informed thinkers and spiritually enlightened leaders from all traditions can bring about an awakening in the hearts and minds of people that would free humanity from caste discrimination, zeal for faith-conversions, and religious xenophobia. This can  happen only in a secular framework.

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What is Enlightenment?

Like many important words in the language the word Enlightenment has acquires a variety of connotations.  Two important meanings of the term refer to states of awareness and actions based on that awareness in two entirely different contexts: in the spiritual-religious realm and in worldly practical  life. The first is important in one’s spiritual life; the second in one’s status as member of a society and of the world. Enlightenment of the first kind is of interest and significance for the individual. That of the second kind is of enormous import for societies, nations, and the world community at large. But both play central roles in the world today.
In the midst of the myriad problems facing the world today, some of which have the potential for catastrophic upheavals in the political, moral, and physical status of humanity, there are very few hopes that light up the pervasive gloom in the human condition. Different people and different groups entertain a variety of hopes, and many offer solutions to the problems we are facing. One of those hopes is that the vision of the Enlightenment will come within reach and inspire large numbers of people.
In order for this to happen people should have some idea as to what constitutes Enlightenment. That is what we shall try to do briefly in this in this chapter. The related questions of  of the history of the Enlightenment, how to achieve it,  how to propagate it, and how to establish it in the world at large will be taken up in other chapters.
But first it is important to distinguish between two important and quite unrelated meanings of the word. One refers to the new awakening in knowledge, worldviews, and methodologies that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is the meaning in which we shall be using the world in this book. The term is used in the  second meaning in the context of certain spiritual disciplines in the Hindu-Buddhist framework. This is a powerful and widely adopted goal in life for many people, but we will not be concerned with it in this book. Given that we live in a  multicultural world, it should be of some interest for modern readers beyond the Indic cultural framework to have some idea of this other significance of the term. The Sanskrit word for Enlightenment is bodhi. From this is derived the word for one who is enlightened, or more exactly one who has attained true Enlightenment: namely Buddha. In other words, the founder of the religion was Buddha, the Enlightened One, and the goal of the religion is to enable its adherents to the enlightened state. Thus a Buddhist is one who has either already achieved Enlightenment or is striving for that goal.
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