Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Religious experience and chopping wood

In graduate school, I found cosmology to be one of the toughest classes. We used Structure Formation in the Universe by T. Padmanabhan as our textbook. It is an excellent text for graduate level astronomy - though some of its parts will now have to be modified because of the discovery of the acceleration of our universe in the late 1990s. Perhaps, the reason I have affection for this book is because I remember spending sooo much time on each page trying to understand physical concepts underlying loads of equations and, of course, in trying to solve the related homework problems. One of the questions in my oral qualifying exam, in fact, was directly from this book (oh...even after so many years, I can still feel the tension). In any case, here is an interview with Padmanabhan in which he talks about gravity and fundamental forces in the first half, and then about science & religion in the latter half. He takes an experiential approach to religion, akin to William James, and endorses NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) as his position regarding science & religion:

Q You combine your interest in science with pursuits that can loosely be termed ‘spiritual’. Are these not at odds? What do you make of the assault on religion by someone like Richard Dawkins?

A Dawkins has erected a straw man and knocked it down. I have no respect for this. It is very easy to knock down a particular class of models for God and religion. Russell and others, for example, have already done this a long time ago and far more effectively.

My take is that my concept of fundamental reality does not require any support from science or vice-versa. The two things lie in different domains and represent different types of knowledge. One is by its nature introverted, an inner knowledge, and the other is extroverted. Together, they complement each other.

Q Where does this other knowledge come from?

A The idea of direct experience lies beyond Aristotelian logic. It is born out of a personal knowledge—say, through a meditative experience. It is not translatable into the normal grammar of ideas, but nothing in ordinary logic precludes its existence.

And in case you are wondering about the chopping wood reference:

Q Once you step beyond Aristotelian logic, what keeps you interested in physics? Does it not then become just a game?

A There was an enlightened Zen master who was asked what he did before enlightenment, and he replied, “I used to fetch water and chop wood.” And asked what he does now after gaining enlightenment, he said he fetches water and chops wood. Nothing external changes. Doing physics is like chopping wood and fetching water!

Read the full interview here. Also see an earlier post about some problems with NOMA.


Atif Khan said...

Nice but I dont agree with his comment about Dawkins. Dawkins does have some valid reason based on evolution.

emre said...

It's not accurate to say that science and religion are "non-overlapping"; i.e., science can't say anything about religion. There are good scientific explanations behind the evolution of religion, backed by archeological data, and good old comparative exegesis. Just scroll down this very page to read about the latest findings...

Salman Hameed said...

Atif and Emre,

It depends on the definition of religion. It is the same thing with conflict narrative of science & religion. Of course, there have been many instances of conflict, but there have been many instances of cooperation. It depends on the specific context. In the same way, there will be a problem with a blanket NOMA or a blanket non-NOMA. However, individual cases will determine the situation. This is the reason I brought up William James in here - who brought up the notion of personal religious experience (in his famous book, Varieties of Religious Experiences). The subjective nature of these experiences possibly may be untestable - and this is what Padmanabhan is talking about here. In that context NOMA is fine.

But evolution rules out certain types of religions. One can still have a deistic view of the universe and would be totally compatible with natural selection. Ultimately it boils down to one's philosophical position - and Padmanabhan and Dawkins have different positions on that.

Atif Khan said...

I agree on the different position thing but as far as I have read Evolution advocates give scientific reasons which can be tested over time but religions do have several fantasies which seems like fairy tales if analyzed neutrally.