the gods

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Thu May 29 22:36:51 UTC 1997

On Thu, 29 May 1997, Erik Hoogcarspel wrote:

> science deals with facts. a fact is acknowleged public
> information although within certain limits: no fact is without context. the
> qualities of a god are facts, they have been revealed in public texts to
> believers as well as to unbelievers. but even if a god is only known to a
> limited group of believers and the believers are reluctant to talk about it,
> there is no reason why this god couldn't be the object of scientific research.
> of course we find the qualities of a god not by practising mysticism, as the
> young Frits Staal once thought, but by reading texts. 

I don't want to digress into a full-fledged philosophy of science on this
forum, but let me say just this much. Ever since Hume, science has adhered
to measurables/observables. Entities that are not directly measurable
come from theories that seek to explain or predict measurables. Things
like velocity, position and reaction rates  are measurable. The total
energy content of a body is not measurable, but energy differences in some
process can be measured/calculated. If the energy released/absorbed cannot
be measured in some form, scientists would not see much point in affirming
a quantity called energy. 

Given this attitude towards any entity, science cannot investigate gods
and their properties, and still be science. The nAsatyas, agni and vAyu
(as gods) are as much out of the scope of scientific inquiry as Allah,
Jehovah or Christ. Neither practising mysticism nor reading religious
texts is the task of the scientist. Of course, individual scientists may
do either or both, in addition to their scientific research, but that is
because scientists are also human beings, and they are not

In one sense, science is treading on areas traditionally considered the
domain of religion. This is because science is also starting to pose
the ultimate questions. The great number of books drawing parallels
between quantum physics and "Oriental mysticism" (whatever that means) are
a testimony to that. And in almost a century of quantum mechanics, no
serious physicist yet claims to know all the answers. 
Still, to say that because of its own world-view, science does/should have
a view about every aspect of every known religion is overstating the
issue. Hindus will continue to get married and name their children in
front of the fire, Christians will continue to go to church for these
activities, and so on, at least in the foreseeable future. The concept of
holiness/godliness associated with agni or Christ is not within the
scope of science, as it exists today. 

> >Although most science adheres to a philosophy of logical positivism,
> >theories like quantum mechanics make scientists worry about what is meant
> >by 'existence.' But that is besides the point here. 
> i've seen little evidence of ontological worries in texts about
> quantumphysics, but perhaps you can enlighten me?

That could probably be because physicists and educators deliberately
decide not to worry about philosophical implications of quantum mechanics,
or else one could never get any quantum physics done. But if you look at
the history of quantum mechanics, famous problems and paradoxes in the
theory were seen as things worthy of investigation, precisely because
scientists like Bohr, Heisenberg and Einstein had their own
*philosophical* attitudes about the implications of quamtum physics.
Haven't you heard of Einstein's quip, "God does not play dice" and the
retort, "Don't tell God what to do"? Things like determinism, causality,
free will and choice played a huge role in the early controversy between
Einstein and the others. 

> >And, although a scientist myself, I see no need to invest the word
> >'scientific' with the exalted status that it seems to enjoy among
> >non-scientists nowadays. Somehow, being scientific is equated with being
> >certain. Even scientists would disagree with that perception.  
> this is not what i meant. science is an activity, it's work. it consists of
> creating, collecting, ordering and evualating information according to the

This view of science does not explain how science becomes knowledge. Good
science is more knowledge than activity. Activity is used to help
understand the subject of one's interests better, that is all. (I am
influenced, to a certain extent, by the advaita vedAnta view of work and
knowledge, but I consider it justified in this case.)

As for the certainty associated with science, I was referring to the
popular view, probably more prevalent among the average man-in-the-street,
than among scientists and philosophers.

> rules made up by the paradigm. even before post-modern times it's been
> established that scientific conclusions are not certain at all (cf the work of
> Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Latour etc.). scientists can be very impressed by
> their own work or that of dear collegues, and say that they're quite certain,
> but this generally doesn't last very long. science is sort of haunted by a
> Rortyan irony these days. 

Is this view prompted by a reductionist viewpoint by which all science is
supposed to rest on the foundations of quantum physics and/or relativity?
Certainly, most philosophers of science thought (and continue to think)
that all science had been reduced to physics, and paid little attention to
chemistry, biology and other fields. 

It seems to me that in any field, being impressed by an exceptional piece
of work or publication accounts for a lot of the certainty which people
associate with their views. But then, I don't want to get into a debate
here on whether there is such a thing as pure objectivity or not!

> i've heard even of ironic theologians who have lost
> all concern about the existence of god.

They are in the good company of the Indian pUrva mImA.msakas!


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