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Some time this year I received by chance an issue of BACK TO GODHEAD. Being of an inquisitive nature, I took some time in reading it. A large proportion of it correlates with most religious dogma. That is, it rests on the basic assumption of the existence of some undefinable entity, in this case Krsna. However, this is not what concerns me.
My mind was particularly stirred on reading an article entitled "Srila Prabhupada Speaks Out On Truth, Belief, and Science." My criticism is leveled at the arguments used by Srila Prabhupada, which I believe to be fallacious, delusive, and uninformed.
For instance, Srila Prabhupada argues that science is not scientific because it is upheld by belief rather than fact. The justification he cites is that science cannot prove its theory that life originates from chemicals.
Yet in 1953 Stanley Miller synthesized amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins and hence life (since all life is composed of proteins). The experiment was performed using simple mixtures of gasses and an electric spark that simulated a shot of lightning hitting a primitive ocean some 3 x 109 years ago. Several further steps of successful protein synthesis have since been elucidated. So much for an inability to prove scientific theory.
If one cares to glance through a few scientific journals, ample proof exists of many such scientific theories.
Srila Prabhupada goes on to make his second faux pas: "But if, as you say, life comes from matter, then you must demonstrate it by supplying the missing chemicals to make a dead body live again."
This statement reflects Srila Prabhupada's basic misunderstanding and shallow comprehension of death. The process of death, akin to many chemical reactions, is a series of irreversible reactions. It does not just depend upon the presence of some miraculous chemical. When the brain is starved of oxygen, its components degenerate irreversibly. To produce life again would require a very speedy brain transplant.
Another fallacy I observed concerns a remark about the soul. Srila Prabhupada states that consciousness is a symptom of the soul. I disagree. Surely it is the brain that is the cause of consciousness. Why? Well, remove or destroy the brain, and consciousness also disappears. Consciousness, then, is merely due to neural activity within the brain.
In conclusion, it is not so much the problem under discussion that worries me, so much as the overtly transparent arguments proposed. I am not out to deny the existence of a soul or of a god by my criticisms but to point out the irrationalities of the arguments used. Obviously, however, by way of these criticisms my feelings are inadvertently expressed.
OUR REPLY (from Sadaputa dasa): A person who presumes to criticize the reasoning of others should certainly be capable of presenting logical arguments himself. Unfortunately, however, your letter contains some striking deficiencies in logic. For the sake of setting some minimal standards for rational argument, I will point out a few of these deficiencies.
1. You refer to Miller's synthesis of amino acids from simple molecules, and you say, "So much for an inability to prove scientific theory." Now, the theory in question maintains that all life has arisen from an original "primordial soup" by purely physical processes. Do you really think that Miller's synthesis of amino acids proves this? That's like saying, "Monkeys striking typewriters can produce English words. Shakespeare's plays are made of English words. Therefore monkeys striking typewriters can produce Shakespeare's plays." Your fallacy in logic is obvious, but nonetheless I will point it out explicitly: If A entails B and B is true, then it does not follow (as you seem to think) that A is necessarily true.
You also vaguely refer to the elucidation of other steps of protein synthesis. Now just what steps in a biogenetic protein synthesis have actually been demonstrated?
Are you perhaps referring to Sidney Fox's synthesis of proteins by the heating of amino acids? There the problem was that, contrary to Fox's early claims, the amino acid sequences of his proteins were highly chaotic and therefore not at all comparable to the highly organized sequences of biological proteins.
Thus far, in fact, no one has been able to show how purely physical processes could generate the complex but orderly structures of biological proteins from disordered molecular components. (Of course, it is possible to synthesize any protein by laboratory procedures, but this is obviously irrelevant. The question is: Could highly organized proteins arise in nature without the direction of an intelligent agent?)
I should note also that merely coming up with protein molecules is not enough to enable matter to give rise to life. At the very least, what would have to arise would be a complex, spatially organized system of molecules that was capable of self-reproduction.
The system of self-reproduction in today's cells is incredibly complex, and it involves, among other things, the genetic code. This code correlates each of the twenty standard amino acids with an "anti-codon" made of three RNA bases. The code seems arbitrary, for it is not determined by any recognizable chemical relationship among the various molecules involved. But without a consistent code of this kind, the system of protein generation in living cells would network.
How did this genetic code arise? What was the "original" self-reproducing machinery like? No scientist at present can even begin to answer these questions. If you did more than simply glance at a few scientific journals, you might be able to appreciate just how far scientists are from proving that life has arisen from chemicals.
2. You criticize Srila Prabhupada for challenging scientists to supply the missing chemicals needed to restore life to a dead body. Here Srila Prabhupada is simply giving a brief summary of the program many scientists propose.
If he had wanted to get into detail, he could have pointed out that the added chemicals might have to be organized in space in a systematic way and that unwanted chemicals (such as products of decay) might have to be removed. His challenge would still have been: "If you claim you can create or restore life in this way, then prove your claim by actually doing it. Don't call yourself a scientist and just make empty boasts."
A prominent biochemist recently informed me that if he were given the money now being spent on defense, he could build living cells from off-the-shelf chemicals in ten years, without having to discover any new scientific principles. His claim is that we can create life by adding chemicals together in the right way. Unfortunately, I don't think the government will call his bluff by giving him the defense budget.
3. You say that surely the brain is the cause of consciousness, because consciousness disappears when the brain is destroyed. Now, why do we say that it disappears? The reason we say this, of course, is that external symptoms of consciousness, such as speech and intelligence, disappear.
At this point, let us consider what happens when we communicate with someone using a radio transceiver. We observe that the radio produces intelligent answers in response to our questions. If the circuits in the radio are destroyed, then this phenomenon stops. Do we conclude that the radio was the cause of the intelligent speech? Certainly not. The logical fallacy here is: "If A causes B, when A is destroyed B will no longer appear. When A is destroyed, B no longer appears. Therefore A causes B." This is the error in your analysis of the brain and consciousness.
I note, by the way, that the existence of an entity is not proven by the presence of certain symptoms that might derive from it. Nonetheless, it is frequently (though not always) reasonable to infer the presence of an entity from its symptoms. This observation applies, for example, to electrons, which we never directly see but we infer to exist from their macroscopic effects. It also applies to the soul.
Inferences from our direct sensory perception are always fallible, even though we are always making practical use of them. But our ability to make proper inferences can be greatly enhanced when we are guided by higher knowledge that we may not be able to derive from our own experience.
For example, we may not be in a position to infer Maxwell's equations from our own observations, but if we accept them from experts in physics, these equations can help us in, say, designing a radio. Similarly, we are not in a position to verify directly the spiritual knowledge of the Bhagavad-gita, but this knowledge can be of great practical value if we study it under proper guidance.
This brings us to your far from inadvertent remarks to the effect that religion stands for meaningless dogma. There are many subjects one can learn and practically apply only after receiving instructions from someone who knows. For example, I doubt that anyone, except possibly some truly remarkable genius, could understand modern theoretical physics without the aid of extensive written or spoken instructions. The same thing is true of spiritual knowledge dealing with the nature of the soul and God.
Of course, an ignorant person can simply deny that such knowledge exists. You could also assert, for example, that quantum chromodynamics is bunk. But apart from accepting the authority of physicists or thoroughly studying quantum chromodynamics, what basis would you have for forming an opinion about it? Likewise, unless you intensively study spiritual knowledge under someone truly expert in this field, how can you know whether or not such knowledge is really of value?
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I discovered the Hare Krsna movement while stationed in Hawaii (I am in the Army). As of yet I haven't been fortunate enough to receive initiation from a bona fide spiritual master. However, I do study the Bhagavad-gita, follow the regulative principles [no meat-eating, no sex outside marriage, no gambling, and no taking of intoxicants], and chant sixteen rounds daily of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. I understand that chanting the Lord's names brings me deliverance from many repeated births and deaths.
I move frequently from one base to another, and at times it's very difficult to reach devotees or a temple. But nevertheless my subscription to BACK TO GODHEAD keeps me informed of activities, events, and holy days to observe. In addition, BACK TO GODHEAD increases my devotion and my determination to practice the science of self-realization.
I would like to encourage other members of the armed forces in similar conditions to have faith and no fear in carrying out Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's prediction: "There will be chanting of the Lord's holy names in every town and village."
Edward D. Smith
Fort Bragg, North Carolina.