Monday, August 31, 2009

Highly pretentious thoughts on knowledge, science and religion

Science may set limits to knowledge,
but should not set limits to imagination.

- Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)

Whenever one observes anything happening around us and asks how, one is essentially prodding a question in science. Perhaps that is how religion came into being (particularly religions that were not created by one man, but evolved over time, like Hinduism). Man observed the stars and planets and their movement in the sky, and first tried to understand their trajectory. On having discovered a regularity in their appearance and disappearance, he would have asked more fundamental questions like how they are traversing the heavens, and what their trajectories mean. On a more fundamental note, he might have wondered how it all began, how the universe came into being. Obviously answers to these were not trivial (and still are not), and there was no way hard knowledge (or even derivative logic) could resolve these questions. Science did set a limit to knowledge there, but did not set a limit to imagination. Without violating hard knowledge (i.e. what they knew were evidently true), they added layers of what they thought could be, to make sense of what is. The Vedas were born, which were perhaps not religious, but were aimed at understanding the universe and existence better.

With time, this imagination evolved and became religion that people started doggedly believing in. It became blasphemous to doubt the sacred texts. Knowledge (from experimental sciences) has also evolved along with this imagination, and instead of redefining this imagination (now religion) so as to fit it into the framework of hard knowledge, somewhere in history, they got divorced. Doubt and skepticism that were an integral part of our philosophical thought process, gave way to blind faith in a fantastic version of knowledge-derived imagination. People started taking religion too literally.

But if one goes back to the roots of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, we see insightful examples of the skepticism and rational thought that went into understanding the world around us. Let us take the Nasadiya Sukta (The Hymn of Creation) as an example. Every supposition that the poet makes here is doubted by the poet himself (perhaps he was a scientist of that era). Even the all-powerful being is hinted to have not been conscious of himself (or herself or itself) until the moment of creation and might even have been ignorant of the process of Creation. The last two stanzas as translated by Griffith, are as follows:

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

(the entire poem and the translation can be found here. )

Imagination, the consequence of hard knowledge had not become religion then. If only we could go back to the era where "the clear stream of reason had not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit" , our lives would possibly be much richer and more meaningful.


Angika said...

Interesting idea - thinking of religion and science as one stream that parted ways and became contrasting when imagination became disallowed in religion. Interesting because I would have otherwise credited religion with more imagination than science; nice to think of it in the flip way :)

sujaan said...

religion is a product of imagination no doubt, but it's imagination taken not as imagination, but as the hard truth... that is where the problem is...

little boxes said...

very interesting perspective.i may not completely agree with it, but it's a very interesting take, nevertheless.
it is very to differentiate religion from politics these days,though!

sujaan said...

@riya, debates r most welcome :)

deepteshpoetry said...

Great post as usual.Loved it in tons!I've been very busy of late.But life at Ju is grt1How r u doing?Well, I've posted after a long time!Pls c my new poem

reema said...

tracing what we can never find..
in neatly arranged sentences.. well put words... :)

ur imagination is meticulous!

Just being myself said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nandhini said...

I agree with you Sujaan that people questioned their existence, came up with an imaginary hypothesis which slowly evolved to become the foundation stones of religions like Hinduism.
But why did this transition happen, why did the people who questioned became the minority and the people who blindly believed increased. How did the lives of people change or benefit by being religious? Why did they stop questioning?
In short did religious people have an evolutionary advantage over the non religious?
Religion as you argue came because of limitations in our knowledge to understand our existence. But when and how did religion start to define the good and the bad? Why did 'an imagination' leave the scientific community and enter the society to become a 'religion'?

I ask this because religion is a such a strong force today in the world. Why are people so reluctant to believe in any other 'imaginative idea', eg- atheism.

Enigma said...

hey... i think we missed out on the politics part. religion was never an isolated force that came to influence man. it was always religion plus powerful politics. that i suppose may explain the gradual but the now irreversible transition from liberal to uncatholic. there may be more confounding factors in human history than religion itself. on the other hand its always easy to follow something that is told than to rise and oppose.. its a self perpetuating cycle... after a considerable period one is so dogmatic that words like heresy come into existence and people may be executed in the name of religion. but interestingly how did the cycle begin? it is where i believe that the confounding factors that i mentioned earlier come into play. science of course continued to flourish at its own speed simply because one couldnt just exterminate everyone who opposed the all pervading force of religion + politics... also science produced such marvels which the dogged orthodoxy could not deny, neither did their religion have any such comparable produits. they continue to oppose science albeit the strategy has changed remarkably. but one thing i must mention that hinduism is very different from all other religions that i know of in the sense that it never sprung from defensive dogmas.. islam for example.. it has been very liberal from the very beginning.. (atheists of the vedic period were given sainthood, khajuraho temples havnt met the same fate as bamiyan budhhas and numerous such examples).. and that is precisely why it is very saddening to see how ritualistic, mechanical and vicious we as hindus have become today.. and i reiterate that politics, medieval and recent, has played a pivotal role in this transformation.

deepteshpoetry said...

Hey...u r writing better n better....Commendable! R u cuming home on Diwali?Hope 2 meet u in JU!n c d new poem on my blog

Rajarshi said...

Hey Sujaan, Rajarshi here. I was browsing through blogs and bumped onto this article of yours. I must say it was extremely intense and thought-provoking - I had to read quite it quite a few times to understand what you wanted to say. Its quite interesting the points that you have raised and I mostly agree with you on the issue of imagination slowly degenerating into organized religion. I have a few points however, which you might want to ponder over.

There is perhaps a reason to dogma. Yes, it has the context of exploitation - people claiming religion to be their own entity and therefore tailoring it to their needs. But I believe a lot of times dogma is good - the reason being the following.

Fundamental questions like the existence of God or creatiom of universe/ what happens after death are very deep questions that have very subtle answers. Trouble is, these answers are not disclosed to ordinary people. Only people of extremely gifted intellect can rationalize and come up with answers - we call them avatars.

Jesus, Krishna were such individuals who had the answers to these eternal questions. The answers were probably compiled in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible.

The problem is, as you have pointed out rightly, there is no mathematical solution to these questions. You cannot find a differential equation whose solution gives you these answers. Therefore if we constantly try to rationalize, use our limited intelligence we don't go anywhere.That is the sole reason dogma is good - it tells you - stop wasting time over questions you have no answer to. Stop trying to prove/disprove God because existing laws of science are incapable of giving you the answers. The answers are there is Gita/Bible. Just do what these books say and you will be fine.

Now, it is true combined with this dogma is superstition. This is probably what followers of Abrahamic religions contest about Hinduism. In a sense, it is true - superstitions give it a bad name. this is probably makes religion so deep and difficult and sadhus spend years in the Himalayas trying to figure out what is true and what isn't. This is what is commonly calles "maya" in Sanskrit. But to the discerning individual, the difference between superstition and real truth is not too nebulous. But even this "discerning individual" cannot decipher what led Krishna to say what he did to Arjuna, so he follows the Gita blindly. In other words - dogma.

A long comment, but hopefully I've been able to make my point. Bhalo thakish.


Kapil said...

Nice post. As always, you are very methodical in your writing. I think the main difference between science and religion is that science never restricts you, everything is open to debate, theories can be disproved or rediscovered. Religion for some reason is apparently beyond debate. Is the Gita or Kuran any different than Newton's Corpuscular theory (proved, disproved, debated and in the end in view of duality he was both right and wrong) or Einstein's relativity?? String theory also has its own mysticism. The divorce then must have surely occured when adherence was enforced. To take today's example, very few of us understand string theory but most of us accept it. If debate goes out of the picture and add to that several generations of improvisation (it helps if there is a long period of instability and war, no time or resources to ponder on fundamental research) and we'll have a brand new book of god. I believe thats how we lost the knowledge of our ancients because since the time of Alexander for almost 2000 years we were assaulted, pillaged and conquered by foreigners. In this tumultous time philosophy became religion and
debate became doctrine. Maybe the only thing that keeps the rabble together was blind adherence.

sujaan said...

@Kapil, who's this? Kapil Bambardekar? great points :) loved the corpuscular theory argument