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Gods and Rockets: Part 2

Circumnavigations

Austin Dacey

August 25, 2009

It is a recurring daydream of mine to launch a mail-order enlightenment business. It would promise enlightenment not of the Kantian variety, in which Aufklärung comes from uncovering things through reason (clearly no market there). Rather, the product would be wisdom of a vaguely “Eastern” variety, common to the Indian-born religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. All of these link enlightenment to a special practice of “non-attachment” to unreal material things wherein one can transcend the ego and achieve union with the Absolute. All is gained by renouncing it all. Sure, you could try to get to the other side of the pearly gates by getting the keys (how much is that going to cost?); or you can get there by realizing that there are no gates. In the late-night infomercials for my product, the quality assurance would go, “Our guarantee: You get Absolutely Nothing or your money back.”

I don’t get to use this joke very often, nor should I. But I have come upon the occasion recently by re-reading the Upanishads, and that in the course of exploring further the subject of my previous column; namely, whether there is a convergence of modern science and classical Indian or neo-Hindu thought.

Reading the Vedas

The Upanishads are recognized as the wellspring of Indian philosophy. They date from the so-called Vedic period, between approximately 2500 and 600 B.C.E. The texts of this period, the four Vedas, are in turn divided into four sections, the Upanishads being the most reflective and speculative of them.

By the time I got to Chandogya Upanishad, one of the oldest and most revered, I was reminded that while my enlightenment-by-mail joke is not much of a joke, it is not that much of a caricature either. A sampling:

“Bring hither a fig from there.”

“Here it is, sir.”

“Divide it.”

“It is divided, Sir.”

“What do you see there?”

“These rather fine seeds, Sir.”

“Of these, please, divide one.”

“It is divided, Sir.”

“What do you see there?”

“Nothing at all, Sir.”

Then he said to him: “Verily, my dear, that finest essence which you do not perceive—verily, my dear from that finest essence this great [fig tree] thus arises.

“Believe me, my dear,” said he, “that which is the finest essence—this whole world has that as its self. That is Reality. That is Ātman. That art thou [Tat tvam asi].”1

“Now, when one is sound asleep; composed, serene, and knows no dream—that is the Self (Ātman),” he said. “That is the immortal, the fearless. That is Brahman. . . .2

The past, the future, and what the Vedas declare—

This whole world the illusion-maker projects out of this.

And in it by illusion the other is confined.

Now, one should know that Nature is illusion [maya], and that the Mighty Lord is the illusion-maker.3

Just as I felt I was not going to get it, Kena Upanishad assured me I might be on to something:

It is not understood by those who [say they] understand It.

It is understood by those who [say they] understand It not.4

It was hard not to be reminded of Feynman’s remark that if you think you understand quantum mechanics then you don’t understand quantum mechanics. The Upanishads set forth a majestic metaphysics of Ātman and Brahman. The latter is the ultimate or Absolute, the universal principle as encountered objectively; the former is that same Absolute as encountered subjectively. Ātman, or Self, manifests in individual selves. Brahman manifests in the universe and in individual divinities.

Carl Sagan once credited Hinduism with being “the only religion in which time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the earth or the sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.” The Vedas: “Verily, in the beginning this world was Brahman, the limitless One. . . . Truly, for him east and the other directions exist not, nor across, nor below, nor above.”

In a series of celebrated addresses to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda sought to portray Hinduism as a universal faith on which the world’s religions and sciences are converging: “From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in Hindu religion” (emphasis added).5

Today the same strategy is still seen, stripped down to a crude ideology, in the discourse of the Hindu Right or Hindutva movement. A textbook published by the Hindutva organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad describes the Vedas as “not just old religious books, but as books which contain many true scientific facts,” saying that “these ancient scriptures of the Hindus can be treated as scientific texts.”6

A Saffron Science?

Is this a historical thesis about the causal role of Indian ideas in the actual development of science? If so, then it is flatly false. Indian philosophy had very little readership in Europe until the early 1800s, more than a century after the methodological revolution launched by Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Huygens, Hooke, Boyle, and Newton was more or less complete. Indian thought was most influential on post-Enlightenment and Romantic figures like Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that science fails to grasp the “inner nature” of things. Far from being an inspiration for modern science, the Upanishads were most useful to those European thinkers who felt that empiricism was missing something.

If “Vedic science” is not a statement about the intellectual genealogy of modern science, what is it? Perhaps it is the idea that ancient Indian thinkers independently discovered key insights of the sciences or at least something that resembles them. Maybe Vedic science is not so much a historical thesis as an analogical thesis. Consider the nature-is-illusion doctrine, or maya, here in a comment from the chapter on “Hinduism and Science” in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science:

Maya has often been castigated as a pessimistic concept describing the spatio-temporal world as worthless and illusory. The growing interest in the ideas of quantum entanglement and multiple possible worlds by quantum physicists might provide a welcome note for the dynamic and positive interpretations of maya, which hold that the world is “real while experiencing, but not independently.”7

In contemplating the doctrine of maya, the author is reminded of the weird world of quantum physics. But what is the probative value of this resemblance? How much of it depends upon an individual’s level of tolerance for resemblance? I’ve had students with very low tolerance. The more they read, the more everything started to sound more or less the same. A poet once pointed out that any word sounds more like any other word than either of them sounds like silence.8

Suppose there were some acceptable objective criteria for resemblance, and some nonbiased way to sort through the countless Vedic ideas and scientific ideas, so to find relevant analogues. Could we then vindicate Vivekananda’s conclusion that science is echoing the Vedas? Why not rather say that the Vedas are echoing science? Remember, we’ve set aside the interpretation according to which Indian thought had a causal role in the history of science. So, we have no more reason to say that science approximates Hindu wisdom than to say that Hindu wisdom approximates science. Given a mere resemblance between an Indian and a European idea, the self-appointed representatives of “the East” have no more warrant to claim the European idea as Indian than the representatives of “the West” would have to claim the Indian idea as European.

Besides, if resemblance is the order of the day, then countless other ancient traditions have equal claim to be “pre-echoes” of modern science. The writings of the pre-Socratic materialist philosopher Empedocles contain tantalizing suggestions (composed in verse) of the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. Should we say that modern biology rediscovered Greek wisdom? Greek and Indian wisdom? The whole thing begins to look like a joke. Empedocles was from the city of Acragas in southern Sicily. Do his remarks redound to the glory of Sicilians, Greeks, Mediterraneans, pagans?

There is at work here a deeper and potentially dangerous conceit: in identifying those entities that deserve praise for their science-reminiscent insights, this way of thinking arbitrarily subdivides a complex social reality in the interest of mobilizing solidarity around some community. Who precisely should get credit for the Vedas? Surely not, as the Hindu Right would have it, the Indian nation as a whole, the same nation that is a secular democracy and home to the third-largest Muslim population in the world.

The irony is that the echoes or analogues of contemporary science in world history could be seen as evidence of the universality of science. Instead they are brandished by neo-Hindus and their post-modernist allies as proof of the cultural specificity of science or the superiority of a particular tradition. Despite the undeniable fact that the sciences have their cultural and historical roots in particular societies—Europe in the middle of the last millenium—they are universal in at least three senses. The sciences are universal in scope. Their validity is not bounded by epoch, place, or people. They are universal in practice: open in principle to all individual practitioners, fruitfully adoptable by any willing peoples. Finally, they are as nonproprietary as any human striving. They belong to no one people.

One with Nothing

Vivekananda’s message is now found alongside a quite different one, to the effect that the materialistic worldview of Western science is impoverished and incomplete and must be supplemented by the more holistic, pluralistic, and spiritual outlook of the Indian tradition. And so one reads from the same chapter in the Oxford Handbook: “What distinguishes the Indian way of thinking from what we today call the Western way of thinking is the wholesome connection present in the Hindu world between theoretical, experiential, and transcendental issues.” This is contrasted with “the linearity and immediate convenience that is provided by rigid, reductionistic structures of knowledge.”

For those readers looking for a thorough draining of the cognitive swamp where pop physics and New Age mysticism are brewed together by neo-Hindu gurus, I recommend Victor Stenger’s Unconscious Quantum. For present purposes, it is enough to note that the neo-Hindu critique of science is in tension with, if not strictly incompatible with, the previous argument for the scientific validity of Vedanta. For if the greatness of science has brought it around to ancient Indian wisdom, as Vivekananda postulated, then to that extent science does not stand in need of ancient Indian wisdom to correct its shortcomings.

In the end, it must be said that in light of modern cosmology, Indian philosophy was dead wrong about the biggest thing of all. We cannot be one with everything. Our world—everything living and inorganic—is a fig seed in a desert. Physics tells us that the ordinary matter that makes up all the planets, stars, and gases—and everything we’ve ever known—accounts for only 5 percent of the mass of the universe. If there is a One, we are not in on it. Its “finest essence” is not ours. We can identify with the fig seed, with life, even with life’s lifeless chemistry. But everything else, the rest of the universe, is near completely, fundamentally Other. The unbiased observer would see we clearly do not belong here. Here then is our self-portrait from the sciences so far, and verily anti-Vedic at that: a fig tree clinging, with the not-fig infinite on all sides. When you do get your mail-order-enlightenment kit, it will come stamped, “Void where not prohibited.”

Notes

  1. Chāndogya 12. 1-3, translation from Robert Ernest Hume, ed., The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 247-248.
  2. Chāndogya 11. 1, ibid., p. 271.
  3. Svetāsvatara 4. 9-10, ibid., p. 404.
  4. Kena 2. 3, ibid, p. 337.
  5. In Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A. Noll, eds., A documentary history of religion in America: Since 1887 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 72. The term Vedānta, literally, ‘Veda’s end,’ since the medieval period has come to refer to a dominant philosophical school of interpretation of Vedic teachings.
  6. Meera Nanda, “Postmodernism, Hindu nationalism and ‘Vedic science’” Frontline vol 20, no. 26 (December 20, 2003-January 2, 2004); http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2026/stories/20040102000607800.htm; accessed August 12, 2009.
  7. Sangeetha Menon, “Hinduism and Science,” in Philip Clayton and Zachary R. Simpson eds., The Oxford handbook of religion and science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 19.
  8. I attribute this thought to the American poet William Stafford: “I assume that all syllables rhyme, sort of. That is, any syllable sounds more like any other syllable than either of them sounds like silence.” Thanks to Philip Dacey for this.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.