Science and Spirituality: Where
Do They Meet?
discussion on mind or consciousness must, of necessity, be
marginal - at the margins of science, philosophy, psychology,
and spirituality; and there are a host of other disciplines
willing to pitch in. This is so, not because mind and consciousness
are marginal to our preoccupations - there would not be any
preoccupation without mind or consciousness - but because
both consciousness and mind, though impinging on virtually
every domain of human concern, continue to be poorly understood.
are interesting because they serve as meeting places for domains
with discrete boundaries. They also challenge us to look over
our fences and confront different world-views. Entities or
events taken for granted as facts in one domain often turn
out to be less certain when viewed from another. Such contradictions
frequently turn meetings at the margins into confrontations.
And if the margin happens to be a crossroads, one may end
up bewildered by the confusion of viewpoints. Science and
spirituality form two such domains - domains that are usually
snug in their own belief systems, that choose to meet each
other only occasionally, and less commonly, find themselves
at crossroads, challenging their own smug notions.
Scientific and Spiritual Domains
process of science is guided by reason, realism, and realistic
reappraisals of its own position. The epitome of deductive
reasoning is, of course, mathematical logic. By providing
rigorous mathematical models for physical events, mathematics
has often fostered the illusion that the method of the physical
sciences is rational too. But the latter is essentially dependent
on observation and experimentation followed by generalizations
based on inductive logic. This is undoubtedly a thoroughly
realistic process, but it gets linked to rationality when
mathematical or logical models are used to explain observed
phenomena, generate hypotheses, and predict
events. That the link between reason and the physical world
is not a necessary or straightforward one is evidenced by
the need to regularly update scientific theories based on
observational or experimental evidence. These reappraisals
become ‘revolutionary’ when a well-established theory is overturned
or counter-intuitive theories get entrenched. The revolutions
brought about by relativity and quantum mechanics are well-known
scientific method is essentially naturalistic, as it seeks
explanations from within observed sense data and the realm
of reason. Its domain is therefore distinctly different from
the religious or spiritual, for the latter claims to explore
and speak about supersensory or supernatural facts and events.
A definition of the Vedas goes thus: ‘Pratyakoeianumitya
va yastepayo na budhyate, enao vidanti vedena tasmad-vedasya
vedata; That method which is not known through direct
perception or inference is made known by the Vedas; it is
thus that the Vedas are repositories of knowledge.’ Acharya
Shankara is equally categorical in his assertion of the domain
of the Vedas: ‘The validity of the Vedas lies in revealing
what is beyond direct perception. … even a hundred Vedic texts
cannot become valid if they assert that fire is cold or non-luminous!’
such clear-cut territories, science and spirituality (or religion)
should have little to argue about, much less quarrel over.
But the supersensory realm often appears to impinge on the
sensory, if not give birth to it (as is claimed by religion).
So proponents of spirituality feel the need to explain the
sense-world in terms of their own paradigms. People of science
respond would like to imagine ourselves fulfilling all to
this intrusion in two ways: either they ignore it, and continue
with their descriptions of the world as if the supersensory
didn't exist, or they try to debunk such spiritual claims
in and through their theories and observations, often forgetting
that these theories are not formulated to handle such claims.
and a more friendly, responce, is to see one's claims verified
in the propositions and findings of the other. Thus some science
writers see the holism of Eastern religions reflected in the
behaviour of matter at the quantum level, while some Eastern
spiritual thinkers treat the relativity and quantum theories
as modern illustrations of the theory of maya. Such assertions
fail to carry much weight because they have little to do with
the ingredients that give birth science and spirituality their
power: the ability to generate useful technology (the spiritual
domain too has its technical sophistications) and make valid
predictions. It would therefore be useful to examine the fundamental
sources of scientific and spiritual power.
his book Inevitable Grace, Piero Ferrucci has succinctly
captured the dilemma of the spiritual person confronting the
scientific world: "What value is there... in knowing
how the scientific mind works and what it aims to accomplish?
What deos this path have to reach to someone who sees science
as alien, perhaps, even frightening, universe?" He then
proceeds to answer these very questions:"It offers scope
for new, fertile attitudes and mental habits which are not
limited to scientific practice but are the birthright of all
intelligent minds: the honesty inherent in confronting facts,
the discipline of precision and focus, the resolve never to
take anything for granted, the ability to see hidden resemblances,
a feeling of conceptual elegance, the art of thinking in a
coherent way, wonder in the face of mystery".
this sounds very nice, and most of us would like to imagine
ourselves fulfilling these criteria and being scientists in
our own right. But we will do well to remember what the famoust
physicist, Richard Feynman, said during a lecture at a university
in Brasil several decadea ago (and he could well have said
the same thing in India): "The main purpose of my talks
is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught
in Brasil!" observed Feynman and this is what he had
to say about what followed: "I can see them stir, thinking,
"What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have
all these classes".
tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I
came to Brasil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores,
buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics
in Brasil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United
States, that it's amazing that you don't find many physicist
in Brasil - why is that?...
I held up elementary physics textbook they were using. "There
are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book,
except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an
anclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after
one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers
have "errors" in them - that is, if you look at
them, you think that you are looking at experimental results,
because the numbers are a little above, or a little below,
the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to
correct the experimental errors - very fine. The trouble is,
when you calculate the value of the accelerration constant
from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling
sown the inclined plane, if it is actually done, has
an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment,
produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the
extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore
this single example of the experimental "results"
is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled
such a ball, or they would never have gotten these results!"
opinion was confirmed by his experience with the students
in Brasil: At one examination "one of the students was
absolutely super: He answered everything nifty! The examiners
asked him what diamagnetism was, and he answered it perfectly.
Then they asked, "When light comes at an angle through
a sheet of material with a certain thickness, and a certain
index N, what happenes to the light?" "It comes
out parallel to itself, sir - displaced". "And how
much is it displaced?" "I don't know, sir, but I
can figure out". So he figured it out. He was very good.
But I had, by this time, my suspicions... The first question
I ask is, "Can you give me some example of a diamagnetic
substance?" "No." Then I asked, "If this
book was made of glass, and I was looking at something on
the table through it, what would happen to the image if I
tilted the glass?" "It would be deflected, sir,
by twice the angle you have turned the book." I said,
"You havent' got it mixed up with a mirrow have you?"
has just told me in the examination that the light [image]
would be displaced, parallel to itself, and therefore the
image would move over to one side, but would not be turned
by any angle. He even had figured out how much it would
be displaced, but he didn't realize that a piece of glass
is a material with an index, and that his calculation had
applied to my question".
is about observation and experimentation, not about learning
theories and formulae. It is about actually developing the
attitudes Ferrucci mentions, not about being able to speak
ot write wonderfully about them. And this demands discipline.
the non-specialist speaking about science can cut a sorry
figure, holding forth on spiritual issues without a grounding
in the subject can be equally naive. Vedanta is not so much
about Brahman, Atman, and maya as about the adhikara
or qualification to pursue the subject. This qualification
involves a four-fold discipline, sadhana catustaya:
discrimination (viveka), detachment (vairagya),
the six spiritually-favourable mental attributes (samadhi
sat sampatti) and yearning for spiritual freedom (mumuksutva).
Mental tranquility (sama), self-control (dama),
withdrawal from sensual thoughts (uparati), forbearance
(titiksa), faith (sraddha), and mental concentration
(samadhana) make up the six spiritually-favourable
qualifications have been studied and expounded at length.
For our purpose here it would suffice to see the parallels
that these have with the scientific attituted outlined by
Ferrucci: discrimination is analagous to "the art of
thinking in a coherent way"; detachment to "the
honesty inherent in confronting facts" and "the
resolve never to take anything for granted"; the six
mental attributes make for "the discipline for precision
and focus" in spiritual life, and sraddha is "wonder
(rather then scepticism) in the face of mystery". The
desire for spiritual freedom is nothing but the desire to
get over one's ignorance and is therefore shared by the scientists.
is only when these qualifications are met (and rarely otherwise)
that one gets a feel of the spiritual world - of its "laws"
and workings, of the "hidden resemblances" and the
"conceptual elegance" that lie therein. Both the
scientific and spiritual paths call for discipline and practice.
A dialoge between these disciplines would have to begin with
these basics if it is to be coherent and mutually comprehensible.
Scientific Attitude: Encouraged by the magnificient
example of Pasteur, I have made it a rule to adopt the method
of ignorance in my investigations of the instincts. I read
very little. Instead of turning over the leaves of books,
an expensive method which is not within my means, instead
of consulting others, I set myself obstinately face to face
with my subject until I contrive to make it speak. I know
nothing. So much the better; my interrogation will be all
- Jean-Henri Fabre