Where religion, science and philosophy meet

Religion, philosophy and science can hardly afford to ignore the search for a resolution of the contrary experiences and offer a justification of the environment in which humanity finds itself.

What is the origin and structure of the universe inhabited by us? What is our own origin and nature? Are we constituted of purely material, or purely spiritual elements or are we an amalgamation of the two? Is there any element in the universe which is permanent? Are we permanent or only a stage or a link in the long causal chain? Is there a difference between appearance and reality? How are we related to the universe? In other words, what is our place in the universe and what is the ideal conduct corresponding to the station that we occupy? Are the valid means of knowledge intuitive a la Radhakrishnan and Bergson, or rational a la Descartes or empirical a la Hume or a synthesis of all of them a la Kant? Are all our answers, in order to be valid, empirically verifiable? These are the common pivotal questions dealt by philosophy, religion and science.

Their probe into the nature of these questions in the hope of finding their solutions presupposes the practitioners’ faith that they would be able to find satisfactory, rational and final answers to these questions.

This conviction of an individual or the group, or the society is without foundations, without even understanding the meaning of one’s conviction or nature of faith. St Anselm’s famous saying, “For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I Believe in order to understand. For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand”, is implicitly equally accepted by the practitioners of religion, philosophy and science.

This faith is the unquestioned axiom, the starting point of the quest in philosophy, religion and science. This absolute faith in the hope that they will be able to find a final, logical and unquestioned answer leads the investigators to the second stage of their investigation which intensifies their investigations into tentative answers to the above questions. Perfect adherence to faith, is therefore a step in the direction of a cogent and rational articulation of the problems which in turn leads to the rational understanding of the discipline. This stage is the stage of clarifications of the concepts and percepts. The aim is to arrive at a logically consistent view of the issues. Natural and Social sciences come in contact with physical reality; and religion and philosophy come into direct contact with the notion of pramarthicsatta—the ultimate reality.

The clarity in the formulation of the issues in question leads to the discovery of solutions to the problems. It leads to the formulation of multiple hypotheses.

While the object of investigation, in the case of science, is external world; the object of philosophy and religion is exploration of the internal world. Science discusses piecemeal the outer reality; the investigation of philosophy and religion is holistic. All of them follow the method of observation and experiment to arrive at their conclusion. The outcome of reflection on the subject matter of each of them has a cognitive value. Verifiability, rather verifiability in principle, is the measure of their success. None of them can take refuge under the pretense of ‘incommunicability’. If an experience or an observation or the result of an experiment is incommunicable and unverifiable in principle then it is futile, and in such a case we must as Wittgenstein asserts, ‘pass over in silence’.

One should remember that philosophy and religion, like science are the products of centuries of mutual dialogue, discussions, debates, criticism and counter criticism based entirely on mutually agreed rules of rational debate. It is only after rigorous argumentation that a theory is accepted as the gospel truth.

 The guiding maxim of philosophical and religious mode of thinking is that knowledge received from any authority, guru or master, no matter how veritable and venerable, must be examined by each individual in the light of his/her own experience. Shankaracharya said no amount of cold reasoning can prove that fire is cold. Buddha too like other sages and seers, exhorts his disciples thus: “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words only after examining them and not merely out of regard for me”.

In modern times, Vivekananda too insists on the same criterion. According to him “Believe not because some old manuscript are produced, believe not because it is your national belief, because you are made to believe it from your childhood; but reason it all out… then if you find that it will do good to one and all, believe it, live up to it and help others to live up to it”. This represents the paradigm, the ultimate criterion of accepting or rejecting the teachings, principles, theories and practices of science, philosophy and religion. In accepting this paradigm philosophy, science and religion are at par.

If experience contradicts theory, the experience should be accepted and the theory reinvestigated. It is to be accepted by individuals based only on the criteria of rationality prevalent in their times and never on the basis of blind acceptance of authority. Religion, philosophy and science can hardly afford to ignore the search for a resolution of the contrary experiences and offer a justification of the environment in which humanity finds itself. Each of them continually endeavours for such reconciliation between theory and practice.

The writer is a former Professor of Philosophy, University of Delhi.