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Reader comment on Bertrand Russell's passage ...

Individual and Social Ethics


On Dec 23, 2010 Somik Raha wrote:

Sanjeev, you raise some very interesting (and important) questions.

Some random reflections.. At the end of the day, we live in action. So, it matters little if I believe in the pink fairy in the sky or am a devout atheist, as long as my decisions don't change. It seems to me that with your worldview, you value much the same things as I do - that is what counts. This is even more fascinating if one reads Russell's passage - it is deeply spiritual in the truest essence. Russell is asking us to think about what makes life meaningful. Feynman was no different, and both were proclaimed atheists. Feynman writes that it does not matter how we arrive at our scientific theories, as long as we do. One could have been soaking in a bathtub when the bulb went on, or one might have been riding on a bus when an aha moment appeared. No one really knows what inspiration led our scientists to come up with their imaginative theories. The realm of science only begins once the theory is in front of us and we can test it.

However, I guess that we need to talk a bit more about "mysticism". For instance, it was difficult for me to believe the story regarding the column of light that he saw in his Guru during his birthday celebration. I would like to be proven wrong.

To tackle the major premise itself - I am not convinced of the helpfulness of craving supernatural experiences. Many crave such experiences and then become imbalanced, sometimes even after getting it. That may also be the reason that Hari had to really be coaxed into sharing such a personal story (it certainly was the reason why I didn't consider it important to share earlier).

The rest of this post is on the minor premise - whether we can then claim any of this to be a science if we cannot experience what someone else claims to have experienced. You and I can watch the same movie, and have a very different experience. To expect to have the same experience is to have an unrealistic expectation, simply because we have different starting beliefs.

But then, how is this a science?

I have found two ideas helpful. One is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Conflating the two would be a mistake of logic. Including this principle in our reasoning would help us expand our field of examination.

The second comes from Swami Vivekananda's remarkable introduction to Raja Yoga:
"The teachers all saw God; they all saw their own souls, they saw their future, they saw their eternity, and what they saw they preached. Only there is this difference that by most of these religions especially in modern times, a peculiar claim is made, namely, that these experiences are impossible at the present day; they were only possible with a few men, who were the first founders of the religions that subsequently bore their names. At the present time these experiences have become obsolete, and, therefore, we have now to take religion on belief. This I entirely deny. If there has been one experience in this world in any particular branch of knowledge, it absolutely follows that that experience has been possible millions of times before, and will be repeated eternally. Uniformity is the rigorous law of nature; what once happened can happen always.

The teachers of the science of Yoga, therefore, declare that religion is not only based upon the experience of ancient times, but that no man can be religious until he has the same perceptions himself. Yoga is the science which teaches us how to get these perceptions. It is not much use to talk about religion until one has felt it. Why is there so much disturbance, so much fighting and quarrelling in the name of God? There has been more bloodshed in the name of God than for any other cause, because people never went to the fountain-head; they were content only to give a mental assent to the customs of their forefathers, and wanted others to do the same. What right has a man to say he has a soul if he does not feel it, or that there is a God if he does not see Him? If there is a God we must see Him, if there is a soul we must perceive it; otherwise it is better not to believe. It is better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite."

"In the first place, every science must have its own method of investigation. If you want to become an astronomer and sit down and cry "Astronomy! Astronomy!" it will never come to you. The same with chemistry. A certain method must be followed. You must go to a laboratory, take different substances, mix them up, compound them, experiment with them, and out of that will come a knowledge of chemistry. If you want to be an astronomer, you must go to an observatory, take a telescope, study the stars and planets, and then you will become an astronomer. Each science must have its own methods. I could preach you thousands of sermons, but they would not make you religious, until you practiced the method. These are the truths of the sages of all countries, of all ages, of men pure and unselfish, who had no motive but to do good to the world. They all declare that they have found some truth higher than what the senses can bring to us, and they invite verification. They ask us to take up the method and practice honestly, and then, if we do not find this higher truth, we will have the right to say there is no truth in the claim, but before we have done that, we are not rational in denying the truth of their assertions. So we must work faithfully using the prescribed methods, and light will come."

Based on this logic, the question is whether we have setup, conducted and finished the experiment properly to be in a position to judge its outcome. Those who feel they have done the experiment properly and have not received the results are totally justified (and perhaps morally obligated) to denounce the claim. In the context of last night's assertion, if we clean our heart, and the good guests don't come, then we can rightly proclaim that that assertion was wrong.

Now, just for fun, here's a kicker - compare the following:

Swami V in Introduction to Raja Yoga:
"The end and aim of all science is to find the unity, the One out of which the manifold is being manufactured, that One existing as many."

Feynman, in The Uncertainty of Science, writes the following about Michael Faraday's discovery that led to electrochemistry:

"He had discovered that the thing that determined the cominbations of iron and oxygen which make iron oxide, is that some of them are elctrically plus and some of them are elctrically minus, and they attract each other in definite proportions. He also discovered that electricity comes in units, in atoms. Both were important discoveries, but most exciting was that this was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of science, one of those rare moments when two great fields come together and are unified. He suddenly found that two apparently different things were different aspects of the same thing. Electricity was being studied, and chemistry was being studied. Suddelny they were two aspects of the same thing - chemical changes with the results of electrical forces. And they are still understood that way."

What I find fascinating about all this is that I can be an atheist on some days of the week, and this unity principle still does not leave me alone - it is there, dancing its dance :). The biggest irony of all is that the secular humanists, although usually against organized religion, proclaim this underlying unity as the basis for their moral philosophy. Hmm.. so what was the debate about again? :)

Happy Holidays!



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