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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Vignana Darshana - Scientific Philosophy

The Sanskrit word darshana means “point of view”, somewhat similar to the word Philosophy in English. I chose this name because I remembered a book called Sarva Darshana Sangraha written sometime between the 14 or the 15th century. The title means a “Compendium of Points of view”. This book elaborates on 16 different philosophical points of view existent at that time in history of India. This book did not include Vedanta and many more. Scientific point of view was not there, of course. I gave the name Vignana Darshana to this aspect of philosophy, since science is also a point of view. It is a philosophical system with its own rules of inquiry.

The eastern traditions did not emphasize empiricism as much as the western tradition did. Science and its methodology are very much products of the western civilization. Its basic rules were established by Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Bacon and others. The prime requirements are that the chosen topic be studied in an objective manner, that the methods are transparent and open, the knowledge is available to anyone and the studies reproducible. In its never-ending quest for obtaining reliable knowledge about the universe and the laws of Nature, the human mind uses science and scientific methods as its tools. 

 Scientific investigation requires critical thinking in addition to imagination, creativity and ability to see beyond what is apparent. Critical thinking associated with analytical thinking help study the universe by deconstructing complex events. Imaginative thinking helps develop hypothesis. It also helps develop experiments and tools to test the hypothesis. Systems thinking is needed to study complex phenomena and emergent properties such as in biology, climatology, and ecology.  

Initially, a problem is identified and, its components are clearly defined. The problem gets looked at from different angles. Published literature is reviewed carefully to understand the current state of knowledge and to make sure the problem has not been answered already.  Gaps in knowledge are identified and the currently identified problem is examined in this context. The problem is broken down into manageable and measurable, but meaningful questions. A primary question is identified and stated clearly.  Possible answers to the question are generated. A testable hypothesis is generated for each of the possible answers. It is indeed best to generate several competing hypotheses to be tested (Chamberlain 1965). Newer methods and tools may have to be developed to test each hypothesis. Or, methods already published in the literature may be used, if appropriate.  It may be necessary to collaborate with more than one expert in appropriate fields to plan and conduct the experiments. 

Data is collected, collated, documented, analyzed using appropriate statistical tools. A specific conclusion is reached which should be strictly based on available, analyzed data and supporting evidence. It should be clear that the conclusion is valid only under the conditions prevalent in the test conditions. They can be extrapolated to some extent, but not without danger. For example, a physiological observation made in a rat may not be applicable to humans. A treatment method which works well in a 45 year-old woman from USA may not be directly applicable to treat a 11 year old girl in Greece. 

It should also be clear that the conclusion reached is valid only until contrary evidence is obtained. The conclusion reached often opens other avenues or raise more questions and becomes a springboard for more inquiry. 

What are some of the mental disciplines needed during the process of scientific thinking? Non-attachment to one’s favored ideas, intellectual honesty, attention to details, ability to be precise in observation and documentation, and willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead are the primary requirements. One should focus and be prepared to pursue to any depth and be able to accept criticism.   Imagination is an essential criterion. But imagination has to be tempered with evidence, self-criticism and impartial judgment.

Generating a hypothesis is the most important initial intellectual activity. The hypothesis has to be amenable to testing and capable of answering the specific question or the problem which initiated the research project in the first place. It should be falsifiable. (“A theory is not a theory until can be disproved” Platt 1964) It is indeed preferable to generate several hypotheses from the outset (Chamberlin 1965). This will promote thoroughness by looking at all possible explanations for a phenomenon and the design of investigations along several lines. It is also a good antidote to “the dangers of parental affection for a favorite theory” (Platt 1964).

Interpreting evidence requires knowledge of the subject and of the methodology used to collect data, an eye for unexpected data and an ability to think about unexplained observations (Beveridge, 1957).  Platt (1964) redefines inductive inference of Francis Bacon as “strong inference” and opines that this is equivalent to the use of syllogism in deductive reasoning. He suggests that the following steps be applied formally, explicitly and regularly to every problem in science: 1.devising alternate hypothesis (noted earlier as multiple hypotheses); 2.devising a crucial experiment (or several of them) with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses; 3. Carry out the experiment so as to get a clean result and 4. Recycling the procedure, making sub-hypotheses or subsequent hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain. Generation of multiple hypothesis and the use of strong inference make for the strongest thinking process in science.

Science gives us the tools to get as close to truth as possible. These are: objectivity, measurements, insistence of reproducibility of results, acceptance and invitation of criticism and ability to self-correct. When an exception is found to an existing hypothesis, a new level of understanding is reached and, a new hypothesis is generated to account for the recently identified fact that contradicts the original hypothesis. This confuses the general public who thinks that science is unreliable because it keeps changing. Science is humble to the extent it admits that given the current data, this is as close to truth as it can get. It does not accept authority, and is not afraid of criticism; indeed, it welcomes.               

Conclusions reached by scientific methods can be verified. In addition, knowledge generated in one area of science can be applied to other areas. Finally, science does not have all the answers, nor does it profess to have them. Science cannot solve all the human problems which require changes in human behavior. Science cannot give absolute answers with absolute guarantee.

I wish to conclude this essay with a summary of an editorial by Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). He points out that the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

    First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

    “Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

    Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

    “Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

    “Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse.”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out that all the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all these values with exceptional vigor.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Common Themes and Common Names

Swami Tyagisananda summarizes common names and common definitions of terms from the Bhakthi literature in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. They are given as footnotes in his book on Narada Bhakthi Sutra (5th Edition, 1972. Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai).

According to the Swamiji, the word God cannot be defined. God cannot be described either because by doing so we bring Him to the level of an object of knowledge. All descriptions can only be relative to the spiritual development of the person talking about his or her God.  God is one’s personal view of a spiritual Truth and the God of another is a different view of the same truth from another viewpoint.

In the words of the mystics, who have merged with their chosen Supreme Source, “When a man becomes annihilated from his attributes, he attains perfect subsistence. He is neither far nor near, neither stranger nor intimate, neither sober nor intoxicated, neither separated nor united; he has no name, brand or mark”. A Sufi poet says: “I am the Truth, I am He Whom I love, and He Whom I love is I”. He quotes Prophet Mohammed’s words “inni-an-Allahu la illaha Ana” meaning “verily I, even I, am God, and there is none else”. These words are the same as those of Isiah (page 56).

Jesus is quoted as saying: “I and my Father are one”.  “Optismum esse unire deo” which means “The best is to be one with God” says St.Paul (page 57).  “In this state of mystical ignorance, we plunge into the Divine Darkness and lose ourselves in Its life” is a quote from Erigena.  Averroes says that “It (the individual soul) becomes one with the Universal Spirit or is absorbed in it”. Eckhart is quoted as follows: “The soul in her hot pursuit of god becomes absorbed in Him and she herself is reduced to naught just as the sun will swallow up the dawn” (page 57).  Goethe’s famous lines read “By nothing godlike could the heart be won, were not the heart itself Divine’.

Speaking of the bliss felt in bhakthi, Narayaneeya says: “devotion to God , which is sweet in the beginning, in the middle and in the end gives the highest bliss”. Jesus says: “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord”.  Plotinus calls this state as “divinely ineffable harbor of repose”. Emerson says: “Every sweet has its sour, but the bliss of realization is above it”.

Looking for the root cause, the one Cosmic Principle from which this universe emerged, is called  Hiranyagarbha or Prana by the Upanishad. Aristotle calls it Primum mobile and Anaximander calls it Nous. Bruno and Spinoza called it the Natura naturans. The other designations are:  the Unknowable (Spencer), The Thing-in-itself (Kant), Oversoul (Emerson). These are philosophical concepts (pages 114-115).

The theists call that Promordial Principle as God, the Bare Pure One (Plotinus), Perfect Beauty (St.Augustine),  the Divine Wilderness (Eckhart), the Love that gives all things(Jacopone da Todi),  the Matchless Chalice and Sovereign Wine (Sufi), The Jehova (Jewish), the Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Romans), the father in Heaven (Christians), Dharmakaya of the Buddhists, the Allah (Islam), Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrian) and Brahman, Paramatman, Isvara, Bhagavan , Purushottaman and the Ekam Sat of the Hindus(page 116).

Finally, Plutarch is quoted as saying (page 116): “One sun and one sky over all nations; and one Deity under many names”.  This is the same as the passage in Rg Veda 1: 164, 46: Truth is one; the learned call by many names”.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Mystery of Awareness

Is awareness an emergent property of the mind? Or, is it an inherent property? Emergent property is one which is exhibited by a complex system but not by the individual members of its component parts. Inherent property is an essential quality or ability of the person or thing.

To me, it appears that awareness is both. It is an emergent property, because individual neurons do not have that property and it is a property of a complex system of neurons and networks. It is inherent when viewed from the function of the brain.

In our awareness, we experience both bodily sensations and sensory inputs from outside. Bodily sensation includes both physical or externally induced and mental, such as feelings and emotions, which are generated internally. We are also aware of the fact that we are aware of that awareness. The awareness is called the substrate and the awareness of awareness is called the substrate consciousness by the Buddhist psychologists. One is physical. The other is metaphysical.

Whatever it is, what we observe in nature is not things in nature as they are, but mental images of those things which were observed, after modification and/or rearrangement by our emotions, prior knowledge and bias. This is the Buddhist’s point of view and the basis of Buddha’s teachings of knowing the true nature of things and dependent co-arising.

What if there is another universe where the life-forms have a different set of sensory modalities? Will their view of the universe be different from those of ours? Will their awareness be different?

The inner self seeks the bliss of knowing the three origins – that of the Universe, that of Life and that of Awareness. Not that we will ever be able to know. Therefore, the bliss is in the pursuit of that knowledge. How can we experience the bliss amidst so many distractions and noise? How can we experience the mystery going beyond the assertions of science which gives a more accurate picture of physical reality, but ignores values, emotions and intuitions? How can we go beyond theology which binds us to rituals and symbols developed for a bygone era?

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Origins of Early Forms of Religions - Part 2

Rites are meant to separate the sacred from the profane. There are positive rites to elevate the profane to the sacred and negative rites to clean the profane and prepare it for the sacred. The rites are also allotted in space (pilgrimage, sacred sites) and time (feasts and seasonal festivals). When the devotee places food or other offerings at the altar (sacred spot) , it is not just the food he is offering. “It is his thoughts” which is offered. Durkeim points out the well-known fact that in the practice of negative rites “the system of interdicts (the prohibitions) swells and exaggerates itself to the point of usurping the entire existence”. How true this is in all religions!

“A sacred principle in any system is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified”, says Durkheim. “A sacred principle exists only in the minds of those who believe in it”. In fact, “there is nothing in the constitution of things which corresponds to sacredness”.

God is the collective representation of the society/clan/tribe in the individual mind and the rituals are where connections are made with that supreme and with other members of the tribe/clan/society.

Gods are symbolic expression of the society in which they originate, a collective conceptualized expression of individual images. These gods cannot do without the individuals any more than individuals can do without society. Idols are conceptualized, reified images of gods in that society and their function is that of a part to the whole. “It is an agent of transmission”. (These thoughts are echoed in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretations of the Rg Veda)

Rituals are to “revivify the most essential elements of the collective consciousness”. They re-enact the cosmology, history of the clan and ancestors and its moral system. They tie the individual to the society and transmits the societal values and views to the individual. The intended effects are on the mind of the individual to shape the moral aspects of relationship with other members of the society, with nature and with the supramental divinity.

Sacredness is an ambiguous concept according to Robertson-Smith and Durkheim, because religious forces are of two kinds: beneficent and diabolic. The beneficent forces are the providers of safety, health, food and wealth. We respect them, thank them. We worship them. They are the holy ones. The evil forces deliver sickness, disasters, and death. We fear them; try to appease them. We avoid them or try to purify after them so that the sacred forces are not contaminated. That is how the idea of religious purity comes in. Pure and impure are not two separate classes. Both are sacred, but of two different kinds. One is propitious, and the other is Unpropitious.

Religion according to Durkheim is a product of the society – any society. It is the collective consciousness of the society and therefore gives us moral values, esthetics, music and art and even the foundations of science.  Science asks the same fundamental questions as religion such as “How did this universe come about? What are the laws of nature?”. But Science takes an impersonal objective attitude to studying nature’s laws. In the process, it learns more about the parts but not able to connect to the whole. It also gets blind to human needs, values and emotions.

In differentiating religion from science, Durkheim also points out that science explains laws of nature but does not speculate. That speculative function of religion seems to be important to humanity. Every early religion fulfills this need of humans in society. Society gave these gifts to the individuals and individuals reinforced their collective sentiments through interactions and acting out in their rituals. In the process they also surrendered some of their individuality.

If we find that religions are full of evil, injustice and lies, it is because they reflect the realities of life and of the society in general. Durkheim asks: “Is there any society free of evil, injustice and lies?” Yet we strive for goodness, justice and truth. It is this battle for goodness, justice and truth in this imperfect world that is represented in all religions.

In religious thinking, concepts are different from sensory impressions. Sensory impressions are felt in individuals and are transient. In contrast, concepts are impersonal representations expressed in symbols, based on societal norms. They are relatively stable over time and can be shared with others.

Durkheim suggests that concepts are collective representations of reality. Individuals make concepts in their minds, of course. But they are formed based on how society abstracts and classifies concrete objects of the universe. “Concepts express the manner in which society represents things”. If the individuals were to be reduced to only personal thoughts based on individual perceptions only, he will be “indistinguishable from the beasts” says Durkheim.

Concepts represent categories and classes rather than particular objects. Conceptual thinking is not just grouping and classifying things. “It is relating the variable to the permanent, the individual to the social”. Useful concepts should be capable of helping individuals relate to the minds of others to bring harmony and also to understand the nature of things in this universe. Alan Wallace calls them “inter-subjective truths”. They have to be stable and impersonal if they are to represent truth.

Please read my blogs on related topics on February 8, 2011 and June 12, 2016.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Origins of Early forms of Religions (Part 1)

Emile Durkeim is a French Sociologist and one of the founding fathers of modern social sciences. He utilized empirical research methodology to study sociological phenomena and published extensively on the sociology of morality, suicide, law and religion. 

Durkheim's works emphasize the importance of religion in human lives, although I prefer spirituality to religion. It appears that the speculative functions offered by religion are uniquely important to humanity. This is a function not offered by sciences. We humans have a need to know about the future. But future is not knowable with certainty. Therefore, we speculate. We imagine. We speculate about the fate of our body and life after death. We speculate about the nature of soul. These can be frightening. We like to know about our origins. But we can never know that for certainty. We can only speculate.  Religions provide an avenue for these speculations.

My reflections following reading of Emile Durkheim’s book on The Elementary forms of Religious Life made me realize many new facts and reinforce many of my own observations. This book is based on the author’s study of primitive religions in parts of Australia, South America and Africa. The author’s concluding remarks are worth reading. Here are some other points gleaned from this book.

Man is the only animal who will kill oneself (suicide) or kill another for no good reason and demonstrate that he does not consider his own life of much value. All other animals will do their best to save themselves and will not kill except for food.

What is given often as evidence in explaining myths, rituals and religious texts is retrospective explanation and not reason.

Soul as a concept is connected to a single body, is within the body and leaves when the person dies. It may also float free for a limited time. But comes back to a body. Spirit is outside the body or the object and can influence the body or the object from outside to move and act (as if possessed).

Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things – that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them”.

Essential elements of all religions, even the earliest known forms of religion, include some fundamental and universal ideas and ritualistic attitudes. They include division of things into sacred and profane; the concepts of spirit and soul; mythical personalities and early ancestors; national or universal divinity;  “negative cult” of ascetic practices and self-injury; rites of communion and oblation (sacrifice) and commemorative and expiatory rites.

Durkheim says that primitive religion was born as soon as sacred was distinguished from the profane. Totemism was the earliest stage in this separation. Durkheim studied many of these totemic religions.

Religion is more than gods and spirits. It is a system of beliefs and rites. Beliefs are opinions about sacred objects and nature of things. This is the mental aspect. Rites constitute a system of actions which connect to a system of beliefs, ideas, and concepts about the universe. They reinforce and re-energize each other.

 Rites are actions based on basic beliefs. Actions towards others in the society and nature are morals. Actions in relation to the sacred become rites and rituals. 

Rites express aspects of reality which are mysterious, universal and intuitive and which evade ordinary reasoning, by means of special actions and symbols. They are speculative. One may disagree with the modes of expression and claims of exclusivity to specific actions and symbols but cannot deny the existence of collective need for belief among all societies, in something beyond what is available to our senses.

It is interesting to note that Adi Sankara, one of the most brilliant of philosophers of India, who taught asceticism and renunciation and an intellectual path to spiritual freedom changed his mind when he found that most common people were spiritually ecstatic during puja (worship service to specific deities) and bhajans (chanting). He realized that there has to be something in faith to move the masses and started writing poems for the faith tradition (bhakti).  

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Brief Summary of Six major Darśanās in the Vedic tradition (Hinduism)

Here is my understanding of the six systems of Vedic or so-called Hindu philosophy. This is to introduce young readers to the rich philosophical tradition of India, hoping they will delve deeply if they have the interest and the time. Please send me corrections if my understanding is wrong. Thank you. 
Samkhya: There are two primordial entities: puruṣa and prakriti. There is no provision for a god in this system. Since puruṣa is unattached to everything and stands apart (state of kevala), you just have to get rid of the wrong identification of the body and the limited concept of the self and reach the state of kaivalya, realizing that the true self as puruṣa was always there. This is Jñana mārga. There is no place for bhakti (faith) or karma (action).

Mīmāmsa: This accepts Vedic gods (not the puranic gods)  but says that gods do not give us the fruits of our actions. It says that we just have to perform the rituals (karma) as ordained by the Vedās and the results will follow automatically. God is de-emphasized and therefore, Bhakti is not part of this system. Karma or action is emphasized in a limited sense of performing Vedic rituals (yagnas).

Nyāya system follows the Samkhya, except it says that logically we have to accept an Īswara who started it all. Therefore, this allows the bhakti mārga. (Vaiseṣika system is also included here) Īswara is prakriti with a form.  (Later, prakriti is equated with nirguna Brahman and Iswara with saguna Brahman)

Yoga system of Patanjali also accepts Īswara and goes on to show how to reach Him through control of the mind and meditation. This is Rāja mārga. Bhakti is also possible.

Vedanta accepts parts of each one of them.  Advaita is the first of several points of view within Vedanta. Visishtadvaita and Dvaita are the other major points of view. Adi Sankara reconciled the approaches, particularly Mimamsa, by saying Karma marga and Bhakti marga are needed (can be used) to prepare one’s mind for this journey through Jñana mārga. It also emphasizes that there is only one Atman (Brahman) occupying everything in this Universe. It emphasizes Jñana mārga by which the individual Atman merges with the Brahman.

Moksha of Advaita is called Kaivalya in Samkhya, Swarga (Kailasam or Vaikuntam) in Bhakti mārga and Apavarga in Nyāya -Vaiseṣika system.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Conversation with people who hold rigid views

 It is difficult to engage in a conversation or civic discussion with a person who holds rigid views or extreme prejudice. How can we engage such a person and encourage him/her to reflect, even if this does not lead to a change in the long-held view?

One method may be to request the person to explicitly express the value about which he/she feels strongly. Then, invite the person to examine this value in the specific context in which it is under discussion. What if the context is different or changed?

What was the origin of this view historically? What was the context in which it came into use? Is that context still valid in the current age and place? Is that context applicable to the specific incident to which it is applied?

Ask the person about the consequences of applying his/her view in the current context (place, people and time) on the affected individuals? What will be his/her position if he/she were at the receiving end of the same view held by someone else? Can he/she consider conditions under which he/she will be open to alternate views? 

 What if the person with the rigid view is myself? The first step is recognition and acknowledgment that I may be wrong. That requires humility, open mind and reflection.