On the Intertwining of Science and Religion


The undeniable fact is that all through the ages, in practically all cultures, human beings have behaved in modes that assume the existence of invisible forces and intangible factors governing their lives and destinies. Some of these convictions  became organized, codified, and formulated in what we call the religions of the human family. Religions have flourished and evolved in practically all societies during the past six millennia or more, suggesting that they have served humanity in a number of ways.What is remarkable is that even after the rise of what we call modern science, and the not insignificant spread of scientific knowledge some which blatantly challenge and give the lie to certain religious beliefs (in all religions), traditional religious beliefs and practices continue, in some quarters with greater intensity than ever before.Given that science is in the business of studying and explaining not only physical but also human-related occurrences, the challenge for it is to account for this phenomenon in consistent ways. Biology may find the molecular (genetic) basis for religious and other beliefs; psychology may explain why religious beliefs are more soothing to vast numbers of  people that irreligious;  cultural anthropology may shed light on how religions have arisen, evolved, and spread among different peoples;  sociology could explain how religions get established in new contexts;  and neuroscience may be able to tell us which part of the brain triggers which kind of neurons for what is described as  spiritual experience.  They are all trying, with already some successes. However, whereas physicists have been quite successful in explaining the structure and components of music, and chemists have explained the sources and structures of molecules that titillate the tongue and the nose, the other sciences have only recently begun to delve into the roots of religious belief and experience, and have been only modestly successful in their theories. But it is important to realize that the deeper fulfillment that traditional religions provide are not to be trivialized by scientific explanations. It is okay to say that the peculiar structure of glucose is what causes sweetness, but that knowledge cannot be used to eliminate glucose from sweets. Any science that is not user-friendly to religions will be regarded as more foe than friend by a great many people. Unintelligible Latin liturgy or archaic Sanskrit shlokas will be more welcome by the majority of the people than scientific explanations that trivialize religious beliefs as abnormal brain behavior.Granting that in its more mindless modes, religions have done havoc in human history and continue to do so relentlessly even today, it is also a fact that religions were the ones that first put constraints on our instinctive urges for self-gratification, self-aggrandizement, and cruelty towards fellow humans. Most traditional religions foster the values of caring and compassion for others, marital loyalty, restraint from promiscuity, adherence to truth, and such other wholesome virtues. Leaving aside the question of whether these values can be nurtured with or without the doctrinal paraphernalia of religions, humanity (and that includes scientists) would do well to practice some of these in whatever activity they are engaged in. It would be in our interest if scientists worked in the highest ethical framework that religions can provide – especially in the context of the actual and/or potential impact of their findings on society and civilization.Furthermore, religions (as I see them) also provide a cosmic vision in humanity’s interaction with the world around. It is not a misuse of the term to say that anyone who lives with an understanding and deep-felt conviction of human frailties, finiteness and fallibility, and with deep reverence for the world and the universe wherein we come and go with apparently no rhyme or reason, and feels a sense of gratitude for the fleeting consciousness with its capacity for love and laughter, science and music,  a consciousness that is his or her privilege for a brief span of time, and anyone who is touched by  a profound sense of mystery as to what is yet to come, such a person is religious in the best sense. And yes, in that sense religion can permeate the being of thoughtful scientists also.

On the Intertwining of Science and Religion


The undeniable fact is that all through the ages, in practically all cultures, human beings have behaved in modes that assume the existence of invisible forces and intangible factors governing their lives and destinies. Some of these convictions  became organized, codified, and formulated in what we call the religions of the human family. Religions have flourished and evolved in practically all societies during the past six millennia or more, suggesting that they have served humanity in a number of ways.

What is remarkable is that even after the rise of what we call modern science, and the not insignificant spread of scientific knowledge some which blatantly challenge and give the lie to certain religious beliefs (in all religions), traditional religious beliefs and practices continue, in some quarters with greater intensity than ever before.

Given that science is in the business of studying and explaining not only physical but also human-related occurrences, the challenge for it is to account for this phenomenon in consistent ways. Biology may find the molecular (genetic) basis for religious and other beliefs; psychology may explain why religious beliefs are more soothing to vast numbers of  people that irreligious;  cultural anthropology may shed light on how religions have arisen, evolved, and spread among different peoples;  sociology could explain how religions get established in new contexts;  and neuroscience may be able to tell us which part of the brain triggers which kind of neurons for what is described as  spiritual experience.  They are all trying, with already some successes.

However, whereas physicists have been quite successful in explaining the structure and components of music, and chemists have explained the sources and structures of molecules that titillate the tongue and the nose, the other sciences have only recently begun to delve into the roots of religious belief and experience, and have been only modestly successful in their theories.

But it is important to realize that the deeper fulfillment that traditional religions provide are not to be trivialized by scientific explanations. It is okay to say that the peculiar structure of glucose is what causes sweetness, but that knowledge cannot be used to eliminate glucose from sweets. Any science that is not user-friendly to religions will be regarded as more foe than friend by a great many people. Unintelligible Latin liturgy or archaic Sanskrit shlokas will be more welcome by the majority of the people than scientific explanations that trivialize religious beliefs as abnormal brain behavior.

Granting that in its more mindless modes, religions have done havoc in human history and continue to do so relentlessly even today, it is also a fact that religions were the ones that first put constraints on our instinctive urges for self-gratification, self-aggrandizement, and cruelty towards fellow humans. Most traditional religions foster the values of caring and compassion for others, marital loyalty, restraint from promiscuity, adherence to truth, and such other wholesome virtues. Leaving aside the question of whether these values can be nurtured with or without the doctrinal paraphernalia of religions, humanity (and that includes scientists) would do well to practice some of these in whatever activity they are engaged in. It would be in our interest if scientists worked in the highest ethical framework that religions can provide – especially in the context of the actual and/or potential impact of their findings on society and civilization.

Furthermore, religions (as I see them) also provide a cosmic vision in humanity’s interaction with the world around. It is not a misuse of the term to say that anyone who lives with an understanding and deep-felt conviction of human frailties, finiteness and fallibility, and with deep reverence for the world and the universe wherein we come and go with apparently no rhyme or reason, and feels a sense of gratitude for the fleeting consciousness with its capacity for love and laughter, science and music,  a consciousness that is his or her privilege for a brief span of time, and anyone who is touched by  a profound sense of mystery as to what is yet to come, such a person is religious in the best sense. And yes, in that sense religion can permeate the being of thoughtful scientists also.

On the Intertwining of Science and Religion


The undeniable fact is that all through the ages, in practically all cultures, human beings have behaved in modes that assume the existence of invisible forces and intangible factors governing their lives and destinies. Some of these convictions  became organized, codified, and formulated in what we call the religions of the human family. Religions have flourished and evolved in practically all societies during the past six millennia or more, suggesting that they have served humanity in a number of ways.

What is remarkable is that even after the rise of what we call modern science, and the not insignificant spread of scientific knowledge some which blatantly challenge and give the lie to certain religious beliefs (in all religions), traditional religious beliefs and practices continue, in some quarters with greater intensity than ever before.

Given that science is in the business of studying and explaining not only physical but also human-related occurrences, the challenge for it is to account for this phenomenon in consistent ways. Biology may find the molecular (genetic) basis for religious and other beliefs; psychology may explain why religious beliefs are more soothing to vast numbers of  people that irreligious;  cultural anthropology may shed light on how religions have arisen, evolved, and spread among different peoples;  sociology could explain how religions get established in new contexts;  and neuroscience may be able to tell us which part of the brain triggers which kind of neurons for what is described as  spiritual experience.  They are all trying, with already some successes.

However, whereas physicists have been quite successful in explaining the structure and components of music, and chemists have explained the sources and structures of molecules that titillate the tongue and the nose, the other sciences have only recently begun to delve into the roots of religious belief and experience, and have been only modestly successful in their theories.

But it is important to realize that the deeper fulfillment that traditional religions provide are not to be trivialized by scientific explanations. It is okay to say that the peculiar structure of glucose is what causes sweetness, but that knowledge cannot be used to eliminate glucose from sweets. Any science that is not user-friendly to religions will be regarded as more foe than friend by a great many people. Unintelligible Latin liturgy or archaic Sanskrit shlokas will be more welcome by the majority of the people than scientific explanations that trivialize religious beliefs as abnormal brain behavior.

Granting that in its more mindless modes, religions have done havoc in human history and continue to do so relentlessly even today, it is also a fact that religions were the ones that first put constraints on our instinctive urges for self-gratification, self-aggrandizement, and cruelty towards fellow humans. Most traditional religions foster the values of caring and compassion for others, marital loyalty, restraint from promiscuity, adherence to truth, and such other wholesome virtues. Leaving aside the question of whether these values can be nurtured with or without the doctrinal paraphernalia of religions, humanity (and that includes scientists) would do well to practice some of these in whatever activity they are engaged in. It would be in our interest if scientists worked in the highest ethical framework that religions can provide – especially in the context of the actual and/or potential impact of their findings on society and civilization.

Furthermore, religions (as I see them) also provide a cosmic vision in humanity’s interaction with the world around. It is not a misuse of the term to say that anyone who lives with an understanding and deep-felt conviction of human frailties, finiteness and fallibility, and with deep reverence for the world and the universe wherein we come and go with apparently no rhyme or reason, and feels a sense of gratitude for the fleeting consciousness with its capacity for love and laughter, science and music,  a consciousness that is his or her privilege for a brief span of time, and anyone who is touched by  a profound sense of mystery as to what is yet to come, such a person is religious in the best sense. And yes, in that sense religion can permeate the being of thoughtful scientists also.

On John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet: A work of Scientific Speculation


In this  slender volume, John Casti takes the reader to an imaginary dinner party in Cambridge (England) some fifty years ago  at which five intellectual stalwarts who had unknowingly laid the foundations for what has come to be known as AI (Artificial Intelligence) exchange views and ideas on the nature, uniqueness, and possibility of non-biological replication of some of the unique functions of the brain. These are C. P. Snow, Erwin Schrödinger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. B. S. Haldane, and Alan Turing: names with which the general public may not be very familiar. The discussants argue and counter-argue on how important other experiences (such as pain and pleasure) are for consciousness and intelligence, whether mind is distinct from matter, the relevance of form to substance for intelligence to arise, about the role of language and culture, etc. From their conversations (which could be turned into a high-brow play for universities and academics) even the uninitiated reader can learn a great deal about this important subject, and the initiated will become aware of certain aspects and sources of the history of AI. The book, which is delightful reading all through, belongs to the Meeting-of-the-Minds genre of writing, and it closes with a short and intelligent summation which brings us up to date on the evolution of the subject, with appropriate reference materials. Highly recommended to all readers who wish to know about an important scientific thought current of our age, and how it all began in the minds of a few extremely intelligent and deeply insightful  individuals.

On Lorne Ladner’s Th Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychologist.


We live in an extraordinary age of wonderful scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements. Possibilities for cure of pernicious diseases and for health and longevity keep increasing. But ours is also an age of spiritual anguish and moral confusions, of promiscuous sex and savage violence. Crudeness, combativeness, and religious intolerance seem to be on the rise. In this context, it is refreshing to read a book that brings us wholesome worldviews that could help restore some balance in human interactions, based on both scientific  and spiritual insights on compassion.

Though the title and principal theme of the book relate to compassion – the cardinal virtue in the Buddha’s teachings – the author, who is a trained psychologist and practitioner of Buddhism,  gives his readers many worthy understandings of the human mind and human capacities for good.

The book is spiced with interesting anecdotes and reflections. The connections between Buddhist tenets and findings of current psychology add scientific support to the recommendations in the book. Reminders of eventual death and the ephemeral nature of existence may not be original, but they can inspire restraining reflections on people on the verge of rash or harsh behavior. There are also intelligent analyses of the  basic urge for happiness in the book. The author presents a clarification of the notion of happiness which should be useful to readers.

There is no question but that raw aggressiveness and self-centered acts of cruelty and exploitation seem to pervade modern societies, and the book is meant to transform them to gentler and more civilized modes. However, it is important to remember that our appraisal of the world’s moral status is often derived from the daily news. This view of the world is, for most people, very different from the world in which most people normally live during their waking hours. When calamities arise, not just in our neighborhood but in distant lands too, the outpouring of caring, compassion, and concrete assistance has generally been at more than a modest level. In other words, the art of compassion is not as lost as the title of the book suggests.

Then again, it is not clear that even among peoples where Buddhism is the principal faith, there is the kind of universal compassion that one would imagine in that framework. When one reads about the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments in Tibet, the reader should not assume that all the people in Judeo-Christian societies put those nuggets of wisdom into practice.

This is not to say that the  wisdom and perspectives spelled out in this book are not relevant or significant. Irrespective of one’s religious affiliation or absence thereof, one can benefit enormously by following the recipes for Compassion Practices given in the last sections of the book, à la Dale Carnegie. These instructions are meaningful, enriching, and practical. If only all were to make honest attempts to live up to them the world would surely be a better place.

This is the kind of book that can have only positive impact on readers, especially if they are in the early stages of value-formation.

On September 11, 2001


 [Written on September 11, 2002]

It happened a year ago, in the morning of 11 September 2001: an episode that lasted for a couple of hours and changed the heartbeat of history. It was as if an asteroid had landed somewhere on our planet, a mindless, mammoth, unannounced intrusion that disrupted everything around and much beyond, causing death and destruction of inordinate proportions. Except that this was hatched in the minds of men, with passion and deliberation, for revenge and with prayers to their religion which had once been a fount of learning and science, of philosophy and poetry, but which has been pitifully sterile in creative science or world-enriching ideas during the past few centuries, and (as they saw it) treated with scant respect by a more successful and productive civilization. They stood tall and strong: those majestic Manhattan Towers, symbols of a nation in many ways, clearly visible from the Statue of Liberty that is holding high the torch of freedom. Those arch-haters did not have the heart to level Lady Liberty to the ground with the planes they had high-jacked with cowardly brutality. Or perhaps they calculated that wouldn’t kill as many human beings.But the structures they struck were towering over the surroundings like the nation does in the world, much to the annoyance of billions. The buildings symbolized America: grand in scale, strong like America’s might. They were brimming with business like America’s market-places, buzzing with economic activity, facilitating finance, providing jobs for a multitude, harboring people from all over the world. In the buildings were citizens of more than sixty nations, belonging to every race and creed. There were blacks and whites and browns working there, Hispanics and Greeks, Sikhs and Arabs too.

The premeditated murder of several thousand innocent individuals and the infliction of painful bereavement on thousands more should have been abhorrent to every decent and civilized person, and yet it was a matter for rejoicing, public and private, to millions who have been harboring venomous hate, for reasons justified and unjustified, for the giant of a nation called the United States.

Aside from the anguish and incalculable material loss, that eruption of inhumanity triggered many responses, including a public declaration of war against terrorism and the fiery destruction of individuals who were planning and plotting more such mischief, hiding in the dark dens of Afghanistan. In the process, the medieval Taliban regime was deposed in that unfortunate country. Its leaders – including the mastermind behind 9/11 – promptly went underground, and still remain there: alive or not is anybody’s guess.

Scholars began to analyze the roots of the ruthless savagery, and commentaries filled editorial pages. A sense of panic gripped countless people. Non-Muslims tried to understand what Islam was all about. Most of all, all realized that the world will never again be the same for the secure minority who live in relative comfort and freedom within the borders of the United States. Safety and civil rights began to take on different meanings here: those very features had facilitated the perpetration of the awful atrocity.

Even after a full year, the tremors haven’t subsided: it may take decades for this. Sadly, we are at the brink of another ominous war. The time hasn’t yet come for people of all faiths and races to join hands in gestures of friendship and mutual respect, and to seek peace and understanding, no matter what the price. But we must remember that hate is a cancer that eats away both source and target, and the price of uncontrollable anger and revenge can be very high too.

On the Concept of Self


Do you think the concept of “self” is an emergent phenomenon of our neural complexity and if so is it continuously emerging throughout our lifetime?

I am inclined to consider the self as an emergent property of the neural complexity through the following analogy:
Paper is the end product (through several complex processes) of wood (which has a molecular structure). On this paper could be written countless words and phrases and pictures. [How these come to be written and what, are surely infinitely more complex than the mere manufacture of paper.
Likewise, as the human entity takes form and shape and completion, and begins to grow, the paper becomes fully formed. To begin with, aside from texture and color, all blank papers are equivalent. Then gradually, through the different scripts that are imposed on the different sheets, each sheet becomes very different from every other. So too, our various selves are each very different, but they have the same substrate.
As I see it, (in this analogy) neuroscience can unravel how the substrate is manufactured, what its electro-chemical properties are, how it can be straightened out when it gets crumpled, how its longevity can be prolonged, etc. All this is no mean achievement. But I fear the generation of the particular kinds of scripts on the paper is a very much more complicated process, and may not be amenable to the standard modes of current scientific methodology. As a devotee of science, I hope I am proved wrong.