A Friendly Conversation

Pratik Akshayraj (PA) is a young medical student, currently in his second year at the prestigious Kamani Institute. One day while on Orkut, he happens to notice an announcement about ex-students of the Prabodhini Academy. He e-mails across his details and while on the conference is pleasantly surprised to find an old friend also trying to link up with his school chums. And this is Vinay Buddhi (VB). Vinay is pursuing his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Studies. As they exchange e-mails and then start chatting online they both find out their common interest – philosophy and popular science. One day as they meet each other. . .

PA: Hi VB, how are you?

VB: I’m fine. Nice to hear from you.

PA: As a part of the “Darwin Day” celebrations I have been elected Secretary of the Organizing Committee. We are planning to have exhibits, seminars, lectures and AV presentations. I wish that I could really do justice to properly glorify this remarkable personality-one of the greatest brains of the modern age.

VB: I do recognise that Charles Darwin is very famous and his theory is cited as the definitive answer to the question of the origin of species. But if you may allow, can we have some sort of intelligent, civil and structured dialogue on this subject?

PA: You mean you are a creationist ???

VB: Hey, hold your horses! I would like to play by the rules. Let us agree to express our thoughts freely.


VB: Let me begin. I find the explanation given by experts about the “Theory of Evolution” to be actually what it is – simple.

PA: Well, thank you for that compliment.

VB: To put it properly, when Thomas Huxley ( a friend and colleague of Darwin) read the Origin of Species, he remarked, “How stupid not to have thought of it before!” In fact Huxley was overwhelmed by its importance and devoted so much of his life to defending and popularizing the Theory of Descent with some changes (of course!) that he earned the name of Darwin’s BULLDOG.

PA: I would like to add here that the book Origin of Species was a huge success. The first printing sold out on the  day of its publication. This alone distinguished it from most other great theories in the history of science.

VB: Could you tell me something about the time at which Darwin published his notes?

PA: Certainly. By 1859 it seemed that ‘evolution’  was an idea whose ‘time had come’. I recall someone describe it like this – They failed to ‘see’ what Darwin ‘saw’, not because they were short of facts, but because they had reasons for ‘seeing’ the facts in a different way.

Hey! I want to show you something.

I am sending you one image(fig. 1 below). Please check your inbox.

A minute later….

VB: What is this? Seems like a rabbit to me!

PA: So you did get to see the rabbit. Now see it from another angle. Do you see a duck there? So Darwin taught them to see the duck which other scientists could not recognise.

VB: At that time one of the main preconception prevailing was the notion of special creation – the idea that God or some other intelligence formed this world and stocked it with clearly distinguishable living forms.

The offshoots of this idea were:

1.There was no gradual change.

2.The earth therefore, was relatively very young.                                               

3.The permanence of the earth’s physical structure.                                                                                                                                                                   

4.The permanence of living things.

Furthermore this was the time when scientific thought was desperate to break free of the shackles imposed by religious institutions in Europe. As the wheels of industrial progress were rapidly moving forward, public opinion could be easily swayed away from theological pursuits. By now, the fruits of industrial progress were becoming too attractive.

But, wait a minute, do you have any other explanation for the origins of life or how species evolved?

VB: I do.  The Vedas do not deny the idea of evolution. But they put a wholly different point of view.

 PA: Which part of the evolution theory clashes with the Vedic idea of evolution .

VB: Darwin thought that the organism is the material body and therefore he attributed evolutionary change to the body; while the Vedas assert that the body is like an apartment in which the organism is a temporary tenant.

Therefore there is absolutely no problem if changes occur due to any reason whatsoever to the outer apartment. For example, due to sudden prosperity someone may leave his humble dwelling and move on to a spacious mansion. Also, someone living in a palace might be forced to move into a dilapidated slum. These changes are part of our life in this material world.

Now, I have something to ask from you. Was the idea of a “designer behind a design” or “a watchmaker behind a watch” plain nonsense ?

PA: No. Of course not. As scientists probed human and other bodies they started to admire the various limbs within these bodies. Fins, feathers, hearts, lungs, eyes, stomachs, ears were functioning so well that it seemed inconceivable that they would have arisen spontaneously – let alone by chance. They must have been deliberately designed, to put it mildly. Bishop William Paley’s famous argument – “Suppose one who had never seen a watch before. How could one explain its existence? The efficiency of its mechanism would force one to assume that it had been deliberately designed and that would automatically imply the existence of an intelligent designer. That person is God!

Darwin had studied Paley and even for Huxley, intelligent creation remained the most plausible explanation for the beautiful efficiency of nature.

VB: Did you know that Charles Darwin’s father was a wealthy country doctor and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin too was a famous speculative biologist. Erasmus and his friend Josiah Wedgood were members of an informal club called the Lunar Society of Birmingham. This club had scientists, technologists, manufacturers among others as its members. They used to meet on the occasion of the new moon and chat on harnessing technology and exploiting material nature.

It can be said that these personalities were responsible for nudging English minds towards the feeling that God is not necessary when science and technology are available. The profits reaped from treating nature as a manageable process rather than a divine energy of God led them to disregard its godly purpose. This thought can be singularly held responsible for the best of brains focusing on the laws that governed nature rather than the quest to search out the lawmaker.

A Friendly Conversation

PA: I cannot say that I agree with this whoeheartedly. At the same time, I’m also not able to understand it fully well.

Is there something wrong with exploiting material nature?

VB: See it’s like this. You had previously used that duck and rabbit picture, do you remember? I liked it very much. The image can show two facets but it’s upto us to dwell on one particular facet. In similar fashion the Vedas describe material nature as both gentle, beautiful, benevolent and insurmountable, hideous and cruel.

PA: Wow!

VB: Visualise this! Green rolling meadows, serene pastures, waterfalls, azure skies, lofty mountains, rainbows – all this is a riot of color, symmetry, harmony and sound.  Nature loving poets lamented thusly,

What is this life if, full of care,   
We have no time to stand and stare.   
No time to stand beneath the boughs   
And stare as long as sheep or cows.   
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.   
No time to see, in broad daylight,   
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.   
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,   
And watch her feet,how they can dance.   
No time to wait till her mouth can   
Enrich that smile her eyes began.   
A poor life this if, full of care,   
We have no time to stand and stare.

(William Henry Davies)

At the same time, when she peels away even a millimeter of her cosmetic makeup, what do you see? – Blazing forest fires, devastating tsunamis, massive land slides, earthquakes, floods and erupting volcanoes.

From prehistoric ages to Homo sapiens ( whether he is enthralling thousands at a rock carnival or discussing merger deals in the corridors of financial power) man is always  engaged in a struggle with material nature. If you are accustomed to seeing only one side of the image then you are engaged in ( what the Vedas call) ‘sense gratification’.

PA: Pardon me, but is it wrong to engage in the pursuit of happiness…

VB: Oh no.  A human being, or for that matter, all living beings are described as anandamayo’bhyasat (pleasure seeking).

If for a moment I decide to look at only ONE facet of  the image, say the duck side, and if this corresponds to me projecting myself as an exploiter of material nature for my own satisfaction then what do I see? – I see that I have got senses . My five senses are used for acquiring knowledge – Eyes, ears, nose tongue and skin. Then I use five working senses – voice, legs, hands, anus and genitals. In this material nature I encounter five objects for my senses – smell, taste, form, touch and sound. When I work very hard in order to achieve something I like the taste of it. This is defined by the Vedas as sense gratification.

PA: When a person sees that all these match perfectly well, then why is he not allowed to engage in sense gratification?

VB: Now , if I concentrate on the rabbit facet what do I see – My working senses, knowledge gathering senses, mind and intellect do have energy. Whenever and  wherever I see any energy, my experience states that there has to be an energetic source, from which the energy flows. What is that source? What could be the purpose in me being provided this energy?

PA: Do you compulsorily need a source? Could it just be a “chance occurrence?” An aberration? A mistake perhaps?

VB: I can understand why you may be pulled towards these answers. It is true that I cannot make you see the rabbit while you have CHOSEN to ONLY see the duck. All I am asking is this – Is there a possibility of an intelligence, a cosmic intelligence, an entity whose identity is much beyond the scope of our faculties.

PA: You mean something like – “Let the number be X”.  (J)

VB: Thank you for being such a sport.

PA: What about the overwhelming evidence in favour of natural selection? Do you have anything to say about the way science conducts research? Moreover, science is angry at the way in which blind faith gatecrashes in its territory. Here is a classic rant from a famous evolutionist –

“Science feeds on mystery. As  Matt Ridley has put it: “Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.” Science mines ignorance. Mystery that which we don’t yet know; that which we don’t yet understand is the mother lode that scientists seek out. Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do.

Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. Worse, it threatens the enterprise of science itself. This is exactly the effect that creationism or “Intelligent Design Theory”* (ID) is having, especially because its propagandists are slick, superficially plausible and, above all, well financed. ID, by the way, is not a new form of creationism*. It simply is creationism disguised, for political reasons, under a new name.

It isn’t even safe for a scientist to express temporary doubt as a rhetorical device before going on to dispel it.

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” You will find this sentence of Charles Darwin quoted again and again by creationists. They never quote what follows. Darwin immediately went on to confound his initial incredulity. Others have built on his foundation, and the eye is today a showpiece of the gradual, cumulative evolution of an almost perfect illusion of design. The relevant chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable is called “The fortyfold Path to Enlightenment” in honour of the fact that, far from being difficult to evolve, the eye has evolved at least 40 times independently around the animal kingdom.

The distinguished Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is widely quoted as saying that organisms “appear to have been carefully and artfully designed”. Again, this was a rhetorical preliminary to explaining how the powerful illusion of design actually comes about by natural selection. The isolated quotation strips out the implied emphasis on “appear to”, leaving exactly what a simple-mindedly pious audience wants to hear.

The deceitful misquoting of scientists to suit an anti-scientific agenda ranks among the many unchristian habits of fundamentalist authors. But such Telling Lies for God (the book title of the splendidly pugnacious Australian geologist Ian Plimer) is not the most serious problem. There is a more important point to be made, and it goes right to the philosophical heart of creationism.

The standard methodology of creationists is to find some phenomenon in nature which Darwinism cannot readily explain. Darwin said: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty in order to abuse his challenge. “Bet you can’t tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: “Right, then, the alternative theory; ‘intelligent design’ wins by default.”

Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular manner, theory B must be right! Notice, too, how the creationist ploy undermines the scientist’s rejoicing in uncertainty. Today’s scientist in America dare not say: “Hmm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog’s ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I’ll have to go to the university library and take a look.” No, the moment a scientist said something like that the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: “Weasel frog could only have been designed by God.”

I once introduced a chapter on the so-called Cambrian Explosion* with the words: “It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history.” Again, this was a rhetorical overture, intended to whet the reader’s appetite for the explanation. Inevitably, my remark was gleefully quoted out of context. Creationists adore “gaps” in the fossil record.

Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less continuous series of changing intermediate fossils. Some are not, and these are the famous “gaps”. If a new fossil discovery neatly bisects a “gap”, the creationist will declare that there are now two gaps! Note yet again the use of a default. If there are no fossils to document a postulated evolutionary transition, the assumption is that there was no evolutionary transition: God must have intervened.

A Friendly Conversation

The creationists’ fondness for “gaps” in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis* a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away.

VB: Wow! This guy seems to be pretty angry indeed ! I sympathise with your need for being objective in search for knowledge. But even then there  are serious limitations in the way you do research.

Now let me describe the tools with which we undertake research. Vedas describe evidence in these broad categories – Pratyaksha, Anumana and Sabda.

Are you ready?

PA: Yes.

VB: What follows is the most elementary level understanding of Pratyaksha, Anumana and Sabda pramana

According to the Vedic system, knowledge which is achieved from the greatest authority is to be considered perfect. According to the Vedas, there are three kinds of proof: pratyaksha, anumana and Sabda. One is by direct visual perception. If a person is sitting in front of me, I can see him sitting there, and my knowledge of his sitting there is received through my eyes. The second method, anumana, is auricular: we may hear children playing outside, and by hearing we can conjecture that they are there. And the third method is the method of taking truths from a higher authority. Such a saying as “Man is mortal” is accepted from higher authorities. Everyone accepts this, but no one has experienced that all men are mortal. By tradition, we have to accept this. If someone asks, “Who found this truth first? Did you discover it?” it is very difficult to say. All we can say is that the knowledge is coming down and that we accept it. Out of the three methods of acquiring knowledge, the Vedas say that the third method, that of receiving knowledge from higher authorities, is the most perfect. Direct perception is always imperfect, especially in the conditional stage of life. By direct perception we can see that the sun is just like a disc, no larger than the plate we eat on. From scientists, however, we come to understand that the sun is many thousands of times larger than the earth. So what are we to accept? Are we to accept the scientific proclamation, the proclamation of authorities, or our own experience? Although we cannot ourselves prove how large the sun is, we accept the verdict of astronomers. In this way we are accepting the statements of authorities in every field of our activities. From the internet, newspapers and radio we also understand that such and such events are taking place in China and India and other places all around the earth. We’re not experiencing these events directly, and we don’t know that such events are actually taking place, but we accept the authority of the newspapers and radio. We have no choice but to believe authorities in order to get knowledge. And when the authority is perfect, our knowledge is perfect.

PA: Could you be more elaborate?

VB: Alright, here goes…

Pratyaksha means the direct contact of the senses with their sense objects. This most certainly produces an experience, but is that experience ‘knowledge’?  Hardly. Show an ignorant man a piece of complicated machinery and ask him to make it work. Sure he can see that it is not working but the mere fact of seeing it does not make any sense to him at all.

Once, on a highway a person was driving his car and suddenly it came to a stop. He opened the hood and tried his best to see what he could do but the car could not be started. Exasperated, he called a mechanic, who in similar fashion opened the hood , looked inside and then taking a heavy hammer gave  a mighty blow to the engine. Then he told the driver to start the car. Surprisingly, the car started. When asked about his wages, the mechanic said, “Only a thousand rupees, sir?”

“What! A thousand rupees for merely giving a hammer-blow!”

“Of course, not that way, Sir. The blow only costs you ten rupees, the rest are for where to give the blow and how hard should it be.”

 Under the spell of ignorance, one cannot understand a thing as it is. Instead, we perceive only whatever impressions our materially conditioned senses are able to convey: sound, touch, form, taste and smell. We cannot know beyond these impressions what actually is out there. Hence, perception is occult, since its cause is ever-hidden. Any knowledge that depends upon the authority of pratyaksha is curtailed on all sides by our ignorance of the substance of reality. Not only is pratyaksha limited to impressions, our senses grasp these impressions imperfectly.  Our senses are able to perceive only objects that are within their range. They cannot detect those that are far away or very near. An object too small or too great likewise cannot be perceived. And when the mind is distracted, we miss even those objects that are within the range of perception. Sense objects obscure one other, as when the sunshine covers the shining of the stars, or when milk and curd mix together. 

We perceive a candle flame as a steady light, when in reality, moment by moment, the flame comes into being, transforms and passes out of existence. 

 Sometimes, due to a mirage, we perceive water where there is only dry land. 

We perceive an object reflected upon a moving surface as moving when in fact it is not. 

Western philosophy likewise admits that sense perception is defective.

Four standard examples are:

1) The same object sometimes appears different to the same person, as when a green tree appears black at night;

2) The same object sometimes appears different to different persons, as when a green tree looks red to a person who is color-blind;

3) We derive the forms and other qualities of sense objects from the functions of our sense organs, but objects and organs are really just atoms arrayed in empty space;

4) What we perceive cannot be what really is at the moment we perceive it, since it takes time for perception to occur (for instance, if sunlight takes eight minutes to reach the earth, we only see the sun as it was eight minutes before).

Each of these examples further underscores the problem of the occult quality of perception: what’s really out there? The grave difficulty with the attempt of experimental scientists to solve this problem is that their proposed solution just renews the problem. Experimental science questions existence, and answers those same questions, from the stand point of pratyaksha (experience and experiment).

In Vedic terms, such philosophy is called pratyakshavada. There are two types of pratyakshavadis: empiricists and skeptics.

Empiricists equate sense perception with knowledge. Though that knowledge is presently incomplete, they argue that it should be increased by advances in experimental technique. Vedic authorities reject this attempt as being inherently flawed. Even if we extend the range of our senses by using scientific instruments, the defects of the senses stay apace of the senses’ range.

A Friendly Conversation

In conclusion, four facts about pratyaksha will be summarized. The first is that it is generated from ignorance. Therefore knowledge limited to sense perception is not knowledge at all. The circular arguments of the empiricists and sceptics demonstrate that on the level of sense perception, mind and matter cannot be distinguished. The second fact is that perception indicates the presence of an objective reality. But we are unable to directly connect with that reality through pratyaksha. That is because of the third fact: our senses are defective. On Vedic authority, then, we should simply accept that perception evinces that something is really out there. If we doubt the Vedic causal explanation of pratyaksha, it is only because, being enamored with our senses, we are stubbornly blind to their imperfections. The fourth fact about sense perception is that everything we perceive has a beginning. The evidence is so strong that it is only reasonable to accept it.

PA: Thank you for such an elaborate explanation. One question still remains: Why does God hide Himself? Why should I as a scientist unravel the mysteries of material nature?

VB: This is like asking, “Why does God not submit to my will? Why does He not surrender the codes of nature?”

Let us imagine that there is a student of journalism. His name is Sam Spencer and he writes the following email to Bill Gates (Fig. 3 below).

Do you think this person can surely get a positive response? Or for that matter, can Sam think that if Bill does not send me his jet then I won’t have any faith that he is one of the richest person in the entire world? After all, for him to send a jet will not be difficult at all, so why won’t he do it?

PA: I think that Sam is deluded by his own imagination to harbour such a belief.

VB: At the same time there could be some people, Paul Allen (a close friend of Bill Gates’), for example, who can actually claim that they can spend time with Bill whenever they feel like doing it. Why? That’s because they are already having a very close relationship with him. Similarly it is only for those people that God is not visible who do not have a loving relationship with him. A person with a completely twisted idea of what science is, is  like a hacker trying to gatecrash through a computer code.

PA: Although I would still pursue Darwin’s way of understanding how species evolved I thank you for giving me a Vedic view of evolutionary process.

VB: Thank you. Will continue our conversation later.

Syamananda Dasa serves as the editor for English and Marathi editions of Back to Godhead magazine.