Scientists may hurry to dismiss spirituality as superstitious, but a deeper analysis reveals its superior sensibility.
Spirituality? It can’t be scientific!” exclaimed my colleague. Our impromptu discussion on the existence of God and one’s need for spirituality invited his usual response. I wasn’t surprised. I too had been a victim of the same misconception that spirituality or religion can’t be scientific until I met Hare Krishna devotees. Before that time I had considered spirituality to be full of absurdities, a haven for weak personalities. But then, there I was, eager to make my colleague reconsider his convictions.
My colleague is a textbook case, a casualty of the modern educational system. Most modern, educated youth mindlessly dismiss spirituality, relegating it to the realm of non-science at best or superstition at worst. And while an atheistic outlook is often the byproduct of a modern, scientific education, the plethora of scandalous, self-styled spiritualists have exacerbated this period of “enlightenment woes.” Jumping on the atheist bandwagon, modern students balk at the idea of religion, considering that the spiritual approach is merely a crutch for those who want to avoid reality. But does this criticism really hold water? Are spirituality and science completely divorced from each other? Is the supposed superiority of science really so self-evident? Is spirituality unscientific? Let’s see.
Science and Spirituality the Method
Modern science comprises hypotheses, to explain the observable phenomena within this physical world, and laboratory experiments, to validate the proposed hypotheses. By utilizing physical measurements and mathematical laws the tools of their trade scientists have set out to fully understand the nature and origin of all phenomena within this universe. Of course, there is a fundamental premise that underlies all their efforts: reality is essentially simple and the human brain will be able to fully grasp it through the scientific method.
Now, if we explain spirituality on the basis of the age-old Vedic scriptures which give a comprehensive understanding of spiritual truth sit is thrilling to see how spirituality so closely resembles the methodical approach of science. Vedic spirituality consists of two components, philosophy and religion. Philosophy is the intellectual study of matter, spirit, and the eternal truths of spiritual life; it corresponds to the aspect of science known as hypothesis. Then there’s religion, which involves following a practical spiritual process like meditation or prayer, and adhering to certain rules and regulations; this corresponds to what science calls experimentation. It is important to note that Vedic spirituality, like science, also enjoys a sophisticated intellectual framework and the means to objectively prove the truths it propounds. In fact, spirituality makes a more unbiased and objective claim on the truths of life and the universe and gives a highly efficient method to verify these claims.
Check Your Hypothesis
One does not have to be a philosopher of science to understand that a comprehensive hypothesis and a thoroughly demonstrable experiment would be the recipe for perfect science. And yet, close examination reveals that on both these fronts, scientists have curiously failed, especially in reconciling their claims about the universe with what is practically observed.
Modern scientists begin with the premise that all phenomena within this world can be described in terms of measurable quantities, using simple mathematical laws. This is called the principle of reductionism. Now, this principle can’t be proved; it’s just an assumption. But scientists fiercely defend it because it is the strategy behind all their efforts. Reductionistic science diminishes everything in this world to the level of matter. Even human beings, with all their thinking, feeling, and willing, get reduced to nothing more than chemical reactions. “We hope to explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt,” says Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, USA. This statement aptly sums up the hubris of the reductionist approach.
But there’s no logical reason to think that everything in this world has to be simple and measurable, let alone that it rests within the ability of our mind and senses to perceive or comprehend. Nevertheless, scientists consciously choose to focus exclusively on the measurable properties of objects. We know that things like form, smell, touch, taste, and sound can have measurable properties, but these properties are not by themselves directly analogous to conscious experience.
That is to say, one may measure the amount of sugar, milk, flour, or vanilla in a piece of cake, but that does not explain what it is like to eat it. To taste the cake you need a conscious person. So, although we may be able to describe the measurable properties of the cake, the experience of tasting it is beyond any measurement. A computer can tell you about the exact color composition in a painting, but it can’t tell if the painting is beautiful or not. Aesthetics, like subjective conscious experience, is beyond the reach of science. An individual conscious person is required when it comes to experience. So, the unique experience of individual conscious living entities is also an important part of understanding this world, and it is largely beyond the reach of science.
Now, although consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, we all know it by firsthand experience. We know, after all, that we exist. Thomas Huxley rightly said, “There is a third thing in the universe, to wit, consciousness, which I can’t see to be matter or force.” But consciousness can’t be accounted for in physical terms, so it becomes an enigma to those with a reductionist worldview. The best brains in science and medicine have not been able to solve the riddle of consciousness. And with these superstars of science claiming an unprecedentedly comprehensive understanding of reality, it is practically absurd how little they understand about consciousness, which is a fundamental symptom of life. In fact, many scientists find it hard to even acknowledge its existence. Max Planck aptly noted, “Science can’t solve the ultimate mystery in nature. And it is because in the last analysis, we ourselves are the part of mystery we are trying to solve.” Due to his imperfect hypothesis that everything in this world is matterit is actually the scientist who escapes reality, when he denies the existence of consciousness. Thus, the dogmatism of which materialistic scientists often accuse spiritualists they themselves display in refusing to accept the obvious aspects of reality that are not material. The high priests of science consider any espousal of non-mechanistic idea to explain the universe as a sacrilege, and divinity, especially, is not an option.
On the contrary, Vedic spirituality begins with accepting both levels of reality, physical and metaphysical. Amazingly, what has been the Achilles heel for science is an initial point of departure in the Vedic tradition. Whereas science is groping around in the dark, struggling to explain consciousness in physical terms, the Vedic scriptures teach the fundamentals of consciousness as part of an elementary education in spiritual life. This gives some idea of the intellectual profundity of the Vedas, which explain how consciousness in the body is due to the presence of an essential non-material particle known as the soul or atma. While the Vedas give a rough measurement of the soul, it is of a nature fundamentally different from matter, being anti-material in essence and therefore inaccessible to material senses or material instruments. Serious students of the Vedas understand this consciousness to be the basis of all knowledge, and so term it as foundational.
So, with its own comprehensive hypothesis about this world, Vedic spirituality triumphs over science by taking into account the two most fundamental, and most obvious, levels of reality material and anti-material, or spiritual. By not foolishly denying the possibility of non-material truth, spirituality demonstrates its validity.
But does Vedic spirituality lack valid methods of verification to prove the truths it professes? It must be noted that while in science, experiments are performed on matter, in spirituality, experiments are performed on consciousness the individual becomes himself or herself the subject of the experiment. We have already seen that a conscious person is required to verify to reality of experience. In that context, spiritual experience is a sort of experiential science, not experimental science. Vedic Spirituality offers sophisticated means to access this experience, like chanting mantras, or other kinds of meditation. The Vedas provide a systematic description of the stages one goes through in the pursuit of spiritual experience, and each stage can be objectively observed. The process of bhakti, for instance, lists nine progressive stages, at the end of which one achieves complete spiritual perfection. Indeed, the Vedas welcome us to a sophisticated laboratory of the inner world, where any determined soul can experience the truths of life firsthand.
In his bestselling book The Tao of Physics, Fritj of Capra lists some important parallels between spiritual experience and experimental science:
1. Both require many years of training.
2. Only after such training can one ask the right questions and understand the answers.
3. Both are thoroughly empirical: physicists perform experiments and interpret measurable results, while mystics perform meditation from which they glean spiritual insight. Both empirical processes result in observations, and in both fields these observations are acknowledged as the only source of knowledge.
4. The observations gleaned from both processes take place in realms inaccessible to the ordinary senses the atomic and subatomic world, and non-ordinary states of consciousness.
5. Both talk about higher dimensions, which are impossible to express in ordinary language.
6. Both processes can be repeated to replicate successful outcomes.
7. 8. Both have methods of observing the natural world that are highly sophisticated and inaccessible to the layperson.
Although the experience of spirituality is subjective unique to the individual practitioner the effects of this experience can be objectively perceived in his or her behavior. For example, a serious spiritualist develops detachment from material, carnal pleasures, an attribute that can be seen objectively. In this sense, spirituality is totally objective. When Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, went to the US and transformed his hippie audience into faithful practitioners of Krishna-bhakti, the American society was amazed to see the change in these young people. Previously addicted to all sorts of self-destructive habits, these young followers of Srila Prabhupada quickly overcame their attachments to material pleasures and beamed with spiritual joy. A layman, lacking the necessary intellectual capacity and requisite training, may never be able to understand the complexities of a single experiment in quantum physics. But Vedic spirituality allows everyone to personally experience the objective results of spiritual practice, provided he or she strictly follows the process of spirituality with rigor and adheres to the rules and regulations of spiritual life, which are like the basic conditions necessary to perform a scientific experiment. If one is able to go to work with his consciousness, while following the scientific procedure of a spiritual experiment, he can experience the truths of spiritual life firsthand. Noted Vedic author Devamrta Swami refers to spiritual truths as “state specific”; depending on a given practitioner’s purity of consciousness, spiritual truths are revealed correspondingly. Thus, spiritual realization is not dependent on an individual person’s intellectual or mental capability.
Thus, spirituality offers reliable methods to verify spiritual truths. In fact, Vedic spirituality is more universal than science in its accessibility because it does not depend on previous capabilities like intellectual acumen. So, in the realms of experimentation and hypothesis, Vedic spirituality proves its superiority over science.
Thus, far from being unscientific, Vedic spirituality is more scientific than science itself. Boasting a comprehensive understanding of life and the universe based on the Vedic books of wisdom and the corresponding methods for powerfully verifying those truths, Vedic spirituality emerges victorious in the conquest for ultimate truth. After almost an hour of discussion, my colleague felt that he had good reasons, to try out Vedic spirituality at the weekend session I have been inviting him since long!
So, the next time you hear someone saying that spirituality is unscientific, ask him what he means. It’s likely he’s just another one of those superstitious followers of the high priests of modern science.
Kanai Krishna Dasa has done his Mechanical Engineering. After working in a multinational company for a few years, he is currently serving as a brahmachari at the ISKCON temple in Pune. He is keenly interested in scientific presentation of Krishna consciousness to modern intelligentsia.