Thursday, January 17, 2008

P. Krishna's talk on "Science and Religion"

Prof. P. Krishna served as a professor of physics at Banaras Hindu University until 1986 when he joined the Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Varanasi. He visited our Department yesterday and gave a lecture on "Science and Religion."

To be frank, I went in with the expectation that Krishna would offer a rebuttal to the recent flurry of books -- such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion -- that have denounced religion using some pretty strong language. He did nothing of that sort.

Science and religion, Krishna said, are complementary quests that arise from humans' innate propensity to inquire. The view that they are opposed to each other arises from a misunderstanding -- or, at least, a a narrow view -- of what science and religion are all about. Just as science is a systematic inquiry meant for discovering order in the external, observable world, religion too is a systematic inquiry that aims at discovering order in the inner world of human consciousness. Both of them go back to the very early days of humankind. Early humans certainly wondered about the seasons (for example), and their inquiry led them to science. Similarly, they also wondered about who they were, and if their life had a purpose; this line of thinking led them to religion. Posed this way, there is no antagonism between science and religion.

It must be clear by now that the religion that Krishna talks about is not the same as the 'religion' that we encounter in our everyday life. It's certainly not the faith-based entity that has been the butt of scorn and ridicule from the likes of Dawkins. From what I understood, Krishna's version of religion seems like a philosophical inquiry of a very personal kind. It is certainly not an enterprise that seeks to mobilize a community of adherents.

In his talk, Krishna pushed his analogy between science and religion (in the sense of inner-directed inquiry) in a very interesting direction. He said, "Just as technology is not the aim but a by-product of science, organized religion is also not the aim but a by-product of religion." If you loathe -- like I do -- organized religion, I'm sure you would hate this version of the analogy!

There were quite a few other strands woven around this main theme in Krishna's fascinating talk. But I don't want to transcribe it here, because the talk appears to be based on one of his articles, available on his website.

Let me end this post with a quote from his article whose title, incidentally, replaces the word 'religion' with 'spirituality'! Here's the part where Krishna discusses how religions -- byproducts of spirituality -- have divided us (as opposed to science whose laws are seen as universally valid):

... [It] seems to me, that we have not been intelligent about the spiritual quest. Look at what mankind has done. Just as there have been great scientists like Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin and so on, there have also been great spiritual teachers. People respect those great spiritual teachers because they came upon a certain state of consciousness which was one of love and compassion, a universal consciousness which was not divided from the rest of the world. But what did their followers do ? The followers said, "This man is our guru, our teacher, our saviour, our leader, so let us worship him". They took his words and propagated them. They evolved a system, an organisation which became the church. The followers did not come upon the truth, they were satisfied with propagating the word. Suppose the scientists had done the same, if they had built a temple to Newton and said, "We are Newtonians, Newton is our leader, whatever Newton said alone is true and we are going to propagate it" and another group of scientists did that for Einstein and said, "We are Einsteinians", would we have called them scientists ? We would have said: "You have to learn science, study and discover the order in nature, come upon the understanding and knowledge of science, only then you are a scientist". But in the field of spirituality, we have been very gullible. If a man wears a certain type of dress, goes and does a certain ritual, lights the lamp in a certain way and so on, we accept him as a holy man. We have lost sight of the fact that this is also a quest, an enquiry. Unless a human being comes upon order in his consciousness, he is not a religious man. It has nothing to do with rituals, with the dress we wear, with the words we utter or the books we read. It has nothing to do with some ability or knowledge we have in our head either.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Even krishna nods:'Before Faraday, who discovered electromagnetism, it was thought that electricity and magnetism are two completely separate things. But he discovered that if you push a magnet towards a metallic wire, a current is generated in the wire, as shown by a galvanometer’s deflection. He was very excited about this new discovery. After he demonstrated this in a big hall, somebody asked: ‘All this is very well, but of what use is this discovery?’ And he replied: ‘It is a new-born child. Of what use is a new-born child?’

    actually faraday said to Gladstone" Sir, one day , you will be able to tax it"

  2. gawker said...

    It is tiring to keep seeing all these people mislabel religion as something else and then say see, look religion is not so bad. That's like calling a rabbit's tail a nuclear bomb and then saying look look how nice and fluffy that nuclear bomb is, how could it possibly cause massive destruction?

    Religion and organized religion are he same, period.

  3. Anonymous said...

    To be honest, I think Prof Krishna's talk is a load of twaddle.

    For example, he doesn't define what he means by spirituality or religion, and uses them interchangeably which creates a semantic boobytrap.

    Contrary to what Mr Krishna claims, the consensus among most scientists seems to be that Science and religion (ie, one whose followers believe in the existence of a personal deity which affects & influences humans) are not complementary in any way whatsoever.

    I apologize if I'm preaching to the choir, but as many people would already know, Science is based on experiments, logic and observation while belief in a personal religion is based purely on faith. I think these two ideas are antithetical, not complementary.

  4. Raghu said...

    Even though I find Dawkins' approach to inquiry more appealing (and useful) than Prof.Krishna's, I must confess I am impressed with the analogy of Organized Religion to Technology. As hard as I try I cannot find a good exception to the analogy, instead I find it fits the bill very well.

    The endless arguing about whether Windows (protestant) or Mac OS (catholicism) or Linux (New Age ?) is superior, when all are byproducts of the same (computer) science is well known. Umberto Eco has nice article comparing religion and technology in this context.

  5. Subrahmanya said...

    > Unless a human being comes upon order in his consciousness...

    The "order of consciousness" could be referred to as hallucination, as it comes only through "inner science" devoid of logic.

  6. Anonymous said...

    As Gawker says, its amusing at best, dismaying at the margin and infuriating at worst to see someone redefine something mid-course.

    Imagine debates where one of the arguments is "It depends on how you define X". I believe definitions must be laid down well in advance and only if they are broadly agreed upon, any debate/discussion should ensue.

    Similarly, when talks are announced, the speaker would do everyone a favor if announcing well in advance the tricks up the speaker's sleeves.

  7. Abi said...

    Anon: That misquote is a good catch! I wish Krishna had been a little more precise in his quotes. My own search for some of the other quotes he used in his talk led nowhere.

    Gawker, Anon 2, Sharath: I agree that it would have been far better for Krishna to have used 'spirituality' (or, 'moral philosophy', 'the good life' or even 'metaphysics') in the place of religion. After all, his version of religion does not invoke the concept of god or any other supernatural entity. And it disdains 'faith' and 'belief'. It really makes me wonder why he would want his views to be confused with 'religion' with all its negative baggage.

    Raghu: Thanks for the link to Eco's piece. Interesting stuff!

    Subrahmanya: It bothered me too that Krishna uses terms such as 'order in human consciousness' and 'inner science' without really defining them, letting people use their intuitive meanings. It does lead to interesting correlations of the sort you have pointed out!