Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Science and Spirituality: Is there a Conflict?

In my conversations with strangers, friends and colleagues, and with exposure to viewpoints that have been published in some form of literature or the other, I have noticed the presence of a conflict between the fields of science and spirituality. So this question arises: What is the root of this conflict? Is this conflict really present with its basis on firm grounds? Or is this conflict only "apparently" present and will drop when looked under the microscope of clear and rigorous thinking? In order to address these questions, we have to first understand what these often used terms really mean. What is Science? What is Spirituality? Let us look at them one by one.

If one asks a high school student what science means to them, the answer in most cases would simply be that it is one of the subjects that is a part of their curriculum. Some students will find it more interesting than the others, while there will be some who don't quite take to it. Either way, there are text books that they have been assigned, experiments that they are made to do, and the body of knowledge contained in these constitutes science as they see things. In fact the situation would not vastly change even if this question were to be posed to a student in college. Most of our definitions get established when we are very young.

Go one step further and ask the same question to a student pursuing a higher degree, say a Masters or a PhD degree. The answer will now widen enough to include research literature in conferences, journals, theses etc. which contain information that is more current than that in most text books. These advanced students will also be involved in their own research work. This experience definitely widens the scope of their definition of science considerably. They are now aware, at least to some extent, that it is a process of discovery. However, even most of these advanced students usually think of "discovery" within the limits that have been established by the scientific community at large. These limits get set in various ways, such as the establishment of "areas" of study. The simplest example is the division of science into physics, chemistry and biology. Then we have further divisions such as nuclear physics, astronomy, organic chemistry, genetics etc. In each of these fields, there are questions that are being asked by the scientific community at large, and usually people think of science as a pursuit to answer these questions.

However, the word "science" has a much more fundamental meaning as I understand it. Though it certainly includes all of the above activity, it by no means gets encapsulated by the same. As I see it, in its most basic and pristine sense, "science" simply means the following: "An inquiry into what "exists", and an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence"".

It is this inquiry into the motion of the sun and planets that has lead to the understanding of our solar system. It is this inquiry into what is observed in deep space with powerful telescopes that has lead to astronomy and cosmology. It is this inquiry into motion itself that has lead to relativity. In contrast to this study of the macrocosm, it is this inquiry into the fundamental particles making up matter that has lead to quantum physics.

So many fields of study. But the common thread has been "an inquiry into what "exists", and an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence"". This common thread is "Science".

Through our senses we observe the entire universe. And naturally we are curious about where we are, about how the universe works, both at the macro and the micro levels. And this fundamental curiosity leads to the spirit of "Science". However, from our own experience we know that, in addition to all these external aspects of "existence", there is also an internal dimension. We are aware of our thoughts, our feelings and emotions and, in fact, our very own existence as observers of this universe! The spirit of science is an inquiry into what "exists" - not just what exists externally, but also what exists internally. Science must be an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence" - not just in its external aspects, but internal as well as well as the relation between the two; how each might affect the other.

Spirituality, to me, is this spirit of science directed to the internal aspects of existence. Our mind, our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, we ourselves!!! The scientific spirit in us ought to, in my opinion, ask: "Where are all these thoughts and feelings and emotions arising from?". Go a step further: "Who am I?"

When it comes to the external aspects of existence, we may or may not be affected much by our knowledge or ignorance. Depending on our circumstances, a limited knowledge might be enough to lead a normal happy life. However, this is not the case when it comes to the "internal" aspect of existence. Each one of us is always living with ourselves!!! In order to best understand ourselves, and thus live the best lives we can, each one of us must direct that spirit of scientific inquiry inwards. This inward direction of the spirit of inquiry brings forth the field of Spirituality.

Furthermore, does our interiority affect or determine what we observe in the external world perceived by our senses?

As I see it, there is no conflict between Science and Spirituality. The difference is only in the direction of the spirit of inquiry. In fact, a merger of Science and Spirituality might have the potential to bring forth an overall and complete understanding of existence.

Just as the spirit of science addressed to the external aspect of existence over so many centuries has lead to the fantastically interesting subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. so has the spirit of science addressed to the internal aspect of existence led to the fantastically interesting subjects of Yoga, Pranayamas, Meditation, etc. Scientists working in this field of the "internal" aspect of used to be called Seers, Sages, etc. Patanjali, for example, was a scientist the way I understand and appreciate the term and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras were his body of work.

Finally, just as inquiry into the external aspect of existence is made easier and more efficient when we go through our education in a systematic manner, the inquiry into the internal aspect of our existence might very well require the same thoroughness of effort from our side. Just as in any field of science, much of this spiritual knowledge has been documented and made available for our benefit. And just as in any field of science, instead of just reading text books, it might beneficial to take instruction from some one who is an expert in spirituality, just as we do when we sit in a lecture hall and listen to an expert on Newtonian Mechanics for instance, even when innumerable text books on this subject are available readily.

There might neither be a conflict between the fields of science and spirituality, nor the presence of easy short cuts to become an expert in either. In fact, as I remarked above, a merger of Science and Spirituality might well have the potential to bring forth an overall and complete understanding of existence. The boundary between the external and internal aspects of existence as we understand them may just be our senses.

The only goal we need to keep in front of ourselves is an authentic quest for truth. That, to me, is what science as well as spirituality are all about.

And for that, if necessary, may the twain meet.

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