Science – The river Ganges

The river Ganges, flowing from the heartland of the Himalayas across the plains of northern India, provides numerous places of pilgrimage for India’s religious population. Indeed, one can become ‘purified’ by a mere dip in her waters. Of equal sanctity are the cows that roam freely, grazing by her banks. They are considered pure in all respects; even their dung and urine are valued for their prophylactic quality. Householders living on the gangetic planes since ancient times have worshipped the Ganges and the cows, but when the British became rulers they viewed such Hindu traditions with  skepticism. Yet much to their surprise they found that only Ganges water remained potable during the six-week ocean passage from India to Britain. Equally astonishing were the powers of the cow wastes: the stool, spread in a thin layer across the floor of a home and allowed to dry, formed a powdery ‘carpet’ on which no fly or unwanted pest would land; while the cow’s urine was a cure for various dangerous diseases. Though they were not induced to acknowledge it, India’s new rulers found some of her ancient religious belief suprisingly scientific. It would have been no surprise to an enlighten thinker like Albert Einstein who once remarked, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” [Out of My Later Years, 1956, p.26]

            Just how do scientific explanations compare to religious explanations? Are these conflicting approaches to the same subject matter, or complementary approaches to distinct subject matters? Can scientific explanations and religious beliefs be reconciled? Let us take the help of Michael Peterson, et al in Chapter Eleven of Reason and Religious Belief as we compare and contrast the views that science and religion are in conflict, are compartmentalized, or are complementary. Afterwards we shall examine the so-called split between the natural sciences and the social sciences (sometimes called the “human sciences”), and discern what bearing, if any, this debate has on religion. Finally, we shall investigate the science/religion dialectic from the Vedic world-view perspective.

            Defining and distinguishing branches of intellectual activity such as science and religion falls in the realm of philosophy. Intellectual disciplines can be analyzed according to certain general features: their objects, aims, and methods. When there is a similarity in the evaluation of religion and science according to these three, the potential for conflict arises.

            A typical example of such conflict is biological evolution versus the biblical conception of creation. It appears that the supporters of both, if speaking about the same objects, namely the world and universe we live in, are also suggesting aims for their explanations of how the object under discussion came into existence. Certainly their explanations differ, as do their methods of reaching their conclusions. Biblical evolutionists cite various proof texts from the Genesis creation account, while evolutionists use empirical hypothesis backed by ongoing research. Observing the conflict, some creationists have also adopted the scientific method to validate their claims. This, however, has not spared them from being branded “false scientists” by evolutionists. Nicholas Wolterstorff has explained that fundamentalists use their theological claims as “control beliefs.” Evolutionary theory is then evaluated according to such ‘controls,’ and accepted or rejected insofar as each supports or fails to support the theological norms.

            Evolutionary naturalism, as propounded by such men as Charles Darwin and Julian Huxley responded to the conflict between science and religion by condemning biblical authority and natural theology altogether. With the support of philosophical naturalism which holds that matter alone is real, the evolutionary naturalists created a world-view of humanity facing an essentially hostile, purposeless universe. Science alone could improve human destiny and provide a meaningful explanation for existence to replace the failure of theology and metaphysics.

            Evolutionary naturalism has been debunked by creationists and others who blame its conclusions for, among other things, a wide range of dehumanizing influences. Taking a hint from this critique, it could be suggested that evolutionists might do well to find a means to accommodate theological beliefs, just as creationists would do well to not insist that science adjust its established findings to adhere to certain overly simplistic scriptural formulas.

            One way to insure that the gap between the two is not widened is to demonstrate that science and religion function in entirely separate spheres. If it can be established that they differ markedly in terms of their objects, methods, and aims–that they are compartmentalized–then the conflict can be avoided. This has been attempted by a number of modern thinkers whose views we shall now briefly examine.

            The theological position of neo-orthodoxy and the philosophical conception of existentialism are quite similar in maintaining a distinct contrast between science and religion. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth has explained how science and relgion differ in terms of objects, methodology, and aims. Christianity deals with God’s self-revelation in Christ whereas science deals with the natural world. In terms of methodology, God can only be known if He chooses to reveal himself to us,  whereas our understanding of nature depends upon the proper use of our reason. The aims of the two are as radically distinct: the religionist desires an encounter with God, while the scientist seeks an understanding of the patterns of the empirical world. Establishing fundamental differences in terms of objects, methods, and aims enables neo-orthodoxy to eliminate what would ordinarily be the conflict between science and religion.

            Existentialism is equally committed to establishing this difference. The theistic existentialists (they also have their atheistic counterparts) trace their origin to the nineteenth-century work of Soren Kirkegaard. Science, they say, is impersonal and objective while religion is deeply personal and subjective. The objects of science are material things whereas the objects of religion are personal and moral realities. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber expresses this distinction: “I-it” characterizes the person-object relationship; “I-Thou” the relationship between the believer and God. The believer seeks meaningful reciprocity with God, a goal quite contrary to the scientist’s clinical, detached study. Such vastly disparate objects and aims obviously necessitate entirely different methodologies. Neo-orthodoxy and existentialism are in this regard fideistic in maintaining that faith is not subject to rational scrutiny. For them, the endeavors of religion and science are separately compartmentalized with no possible overlapping.

            According to twentieth-century positivistism, a view already considered in a previous chapter, only empirical objects provide points of reference for meaningful language. Nonempirical objects (e.g., God and the soul) are cognitively meaningless. Science, not  religion, is rational and objective and therefore capable of  yielding genuine knowledge. Though the positivist conclusion is an affront to theistic existentialism, their implications (at least in terms of our interest here) are strangely similar: compartmentalizing religion and science rules out the possibility of conflict.

            Unlike the positivists, ordinary language analysts, following the lead of Wittgennstein, see relevancy in all approaches–the scientific, religious, etc. Each is a viable “language-game” with its own categories and logic. Ordinary language philosophers do not care to judge the truth of a particular discipline’s claim as much as to study its functions. Scientific language aims at prediction and control, while theological language describes worship and comfort. Ordinary language philosophy is as different from positivism as the latter is from theistic existentialism.  Yet, as in the latter two cases, by demonstrating that science and religion are different ‘languages,’ there is no possibility of interaction or conflict.

            Thus far we have assessed the dialectic of science and religion in conflict and compartmentalization. Another view seeks to find some compatibility between the two, treating theological claims as though they are scientific hypotheses or actually assimilating them into large-scale hypotheses. George Schlesinger, for instance, advocates subjecting the factual implications of religious claims to the scientific method. Whether or not this is productive and what exactly the results of such investigation indicate is debatable. This type of approach, as Peterson points out, may leave us wondering whether more traditional methods of evaluating theology might not be more appropriate. Process philosophy is another approach which aims at establishing a viable connection between religion and science. Rather than merely subjecting theological claims to scientific-style scrutiny, the process method, following the lead of Alfred North Whitehead, proposes a comprehensive world-view which draws data from both religious and scientific experience.           

            Donald MacKay, a British philosopher in science, has proposed a further interesting alternative. He suggests that the relationship of science and theology is one of complementarity. Though they attempt to give different kinds of explanations using different methods and aims, the objects they seek to explain are the same. As Peterson states, “Complementarity here means that both scientific and theological explanations of the same event can be true and complete at their own levels. But the methods and aims of the two enterprises differ markedly.” MacKay’s ideas hark back to those of Charles Colson and Karl Hein. He believes that the job of science is to seek the causes of events, whereas theology aims to deliver the meaning of events. Though neither explanation is dependent on the other, we require both for a more complete understanding.

            MacKay clarifies the meaning of the term complementarity, distinguishing it from supplementarity. When constructing a building there would be many drawings from various perspectives which could be considered supplementary descriptions of the same thing. On the other hand complementarity, as Peterson states, “is a relationship among descriptions or explanations that involve differences in viewpoint . . . Complementarity in this sense characterizes the different ways an artist, a poet, or an astronomer might view a sunset from their respective conceptual frameworks, creating different levels of understanding.” How this relates to the previously discussed conflict and compartmentalized views of science and religion is succinctly explained by MacKay:



            “In the context of science and theology, it (complementarity) offers an alternative both to the view that makes all divine activity supplementary to the (presumed incomplete) chain mesh of scientifically describable cause and effect (“God in the gaps”), and to the “watertight compartment” theory that religious and scientific statements are logically independent.” 


            Thus, complementarity allows for a scientific and theological explanation of the same event, though each is exclusive and exhaustive. MacKay’s thought would, for example, accommodate a scientific explanation of the universe while simultaneously allowing the creationist viewpoint as well. Following his approach, advocates of either would not feel intimidated by the other’s conception. Scientists could maintain their “big bang” or “steady state” scenarios, while creationists could continue to insist on God’s guiding hand. The subject of one discipline cannot be addressed by the method of the other.

            There is obvious value  to MacKay’s concept. Religion would not be subjected to an incompatible scientific evaluation, nor would science be forced to fit rigid theological prescriptions. Yet MacKay’s solution brings with it certain inherent problems. Do the ramifications of certain scientific investigations not perhaps conflict with basic theological claims? Is human freedom, for example, undermined by scientific determinism? An instance in point is MacKay’s own investigation of the workings of the brain evaluated as a mechanistic system. Seeing that the brain functions in a similarly determined pattern as the movements of a clock may conflict with the Christian theological conception of the human  as a free and responsible moral agent. MacKay defends his position by explaining that the mechanistic hypothesis is merely a “working assumption,” while theology views freedom as an aspect of “moral and spiritual reality.” The problem with MacKay’s response is that it suggests that the scientific approach does not attempt to actually depict reality. Certainly science does attempt to do so, and MacKay himself is a committed scientist. Hence, his mechanistic hypothesis is not a mere viewing of the brain but must be seen as providing insight into reality. This brings religion and science into potential conflict. 

            Freedom and determinism are only one issue which needs to be worked out for the theory of complementarity to stand. Another is whether just any two explanations can be compatible. And, how can we be certain in advance that no scientific and religious claims concerning the same event will never conflict? MacKay’s proposition may be overly strong. Peterson voices the obvious doubt that a solution which allows for totally different methodologies to explain the same objects cannot be so strongly guaranteed. It would seem that the claims of religion and science need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. An overriding consideration is the value of importance assigned to either the religious or scientific viewpoint as  “knowledge-seeking or belief-forming practices.” What if the two systems define a particular situation in conflicting ways? How much conflict is permissible for them still to be considered complementary? It has also been pointed out that either discipline borrows elements from the other while formulating its respective systems. Scientists borrow “hunches, metaphors, and intuitions” from the general cultural, religiously influenced environment, while theologians borrow elements from their contemporary culture as well. Yet MacKay would argue that complementarity describes more than such superficial borrowing; it actually pertains to their broader, underlying world-views.

            Up until this point we have been evaluating the relationship between religion and science. Just as there are distinctive religious traditions with disparate approaches to fundamental issues, science also has its clearly distinctive approaches. In particular, there is a long-standing debate as to whether the “social” sciences (e.g., psychology and sociology) have unique characteristics which distinguish them from the “natural” sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, and biology). Those who advocate the distinction point out that the social (often called “human”) sciences are largely concerned with humans, and as such require a special method of study. Studies of human behavior require “sympathetic understanding,” something not easily provided by the classic scientific methods. Wilhelm Dilthey points out that human reason and intentions require the kind of empathetic understanding impossible to find in the natural sciences.

            Opponents to this view argue that all the sciences share a common methodology, but that the relatively younger social sciences need to work further to adapt this traditional methodology for their studies. D. F. Skinner insists that the cause-effect analysis so basic to all sciences is equally applicable when studying human behavior, for causes operate in the human realm as extensively as they do amongst the lower animals. But the most persuasive arguments for the unity of the sciences, as Peterson points out, “revolve around the thesis that they share the same logic of justification for the validation of theories.”

            Since our primary interest is the relationship between science and religion, let us assume that there are two distinct branches of science. What analogies may then be drawn between the social sciences and theology. Certainly these analogies will center around what it means to explain “the actions of rational agents in terms of reasons and intentions.” Peterson cites Richard Swinburne’s view of the distinction between scientific explanation and personal explanation. Peterson: “Scientific explanation focuses on the powers and liabilities inherent in impersonal physical objects, while personal explanation focuses on the intentions of rational, personal agents.” The implication Peterson wishes to demonstrate is that the distinction Swinburne draws between science and religion closely parallels the two broad divisions of science. Since many religions posit a relationship between humans and the divine, human behavior may inform us of divine behavioral patterns. Could the methodologies employed by the human sciences not be helpful in revealing aspects of the Divine? 

            The possibility that science may be employed as an aid in theological inquiry is recognized in the Vedic tradition. Religion and science are not opposed, as biologist T.D. Singh, a disciple of the eminent Vedic authority A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains in his essay: “Vedantic Views on Evolution” included in the volume Synthesis of Science and Religion  [p.97]:

            In Vedanta there has always been harmony between science and religion because their domains are clearly defined and understood. Science deals with apara vidya, or material  knowledge; true religion deals with para vidya, spiritual knowledge. Knowledge of one’s body and its components, atoms, and molecules is apara vidya; knowledge of the conscious living being (the atma), transcendental life, and God is para vidya. Apara vidya can be experienced through sensory perceptions, but para vidya is experienced through the discipline of yoga and the science of meditation. Apara vidya indicates the existence of para vidya. Srimad Bhagavatam states that parasya drsyate dharmo hy aparasmin samanvayat (3.26.49): “Since the cause exists certainly in its effect as well, the characteristics of the former are observed in the latter.” This is a synthetic principle of Vedanta.   


Singh’s explanation of the synthetic view in Vedanta is a particularly interesting alternative to MacKay’s complementarity thesis. Whereas for MacKay science and theology differ in methods and aims but agree in the objects of study, in Singh’s evaluation, the methods and objects differ, but the aim is one. The Vedas often join science and theology by committing them to a common aim. The highly admired Vedic system of sankhya [I am speaking here of the theistic sankhya of Devahuti Kapila as opposed to the atheistic sankhya by another Kapila] seeks to distinguish the soul, a spiritual particle, from the material elements by a minute analysis of the element’s specific qualities. The intention is to establish the primacy of the soul and, hence, the relative importance of self realization as opposed to temporal pleasure. But by no means is sense pleasure or material existence denied; rather the Vedic system attempts to harness the material energy to achieve a transcendental goal. True, the senses, and for that matter, material life are temporary; but as material existence is the field of activity for the embodied soul, it is of the utmost importance. Any negative ascriptions applied to the material energy are only meant to serve as reminders that it is not the soul’s final resting place.

That Vedic authorities were not disinterested in material existence is attested to by the expertise of Indian mathematicians and astronomers, a fact not only appreciated by the peoples of other ancient cultures but well documented in modern times as well. Delineations by Vedic thinkers anticipated many later Western ‘discoveries’ in both the natural and social sciences. Fields as diverse as medicine (ayur veda), weaponry (dhanur veda), city planning (silpa sastra), calculations of time (kala-vicara), and social organization (dharma sastra), to name but a few, indicate a sophisticated culture without any ancient parallel. The Vedas are encyclopedic in their sweep of all branches of knowledge. Significantly, their focus is often on this world, not the world beyond; for that other world would remain forever beyond reach if the quality of life in this world were neglected. Thus, Vedic authorities took great pains to refine their knowledge of all the sciences with a view to speeding the human journey onward to its final destination.

            One therefore  wishes  the authors of Reason and Religious Belief were not so poorly informed that they would speak (p.213):

. . . of the relatively underdeveloped state of science in other ancient and premodern cultures. For example, modern science, which advances through commerce with the empirical realm, could not take root in Hindu culture, where this realm is conceived to be either illusory or unreal, and where the chief goal is release from this world, trapped as it is in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth.


It appears that Peterson, et al, are only aware of monistic Vedanta with its utter pessimistic view of this world. The monotheistic Vedantists, as has just been demonstrated, approach this world with enthusiasm. They see matter as an energy of God and therefore do not reject it; instead they engage matter in the service of God. Still, one wonders how the authors could have ignored the scientific acheivements of Vedic civilization which are so patent that they hardly require enumeration. Such uninformed statements appear to smack of geographical and theological prejudice. If the Vedic view perceives the world as “unreal,” why have the Vedas and their followers delved with such an intense investigatory nature into each and every nuance of material existence? Can the authors show any close comparison directly within the Judeo-Christian tradition? Rather, it could be posited, it is specifically because of the absence of thorough investigation of things material in the Judeo-Christian scriptures that the disciplines of material science have been ultimately forfeited to the hands of nonreligious materialists.

            The Vedanta never divorced science from religion as has happened in the Judeo-Christian world. There was no necessity for such a split. The God of the Vedas created the universes by his own volition, out of loving compassion for his children, who chose also of their own volition to separate themselves from him. Because he is all-good, and because these universes emanate from him, they must also be good. Whatever the authors have said of the Judeo-Christian God could easily have been applied to the God of the Vedas. So, to quote Michael Foster [p.211]:

            A world which is created by the Christian God will be both contingent and orderly.  It will embody regularities and patterns, since its Maker is rational, but the particular regularities and patterns which it will embody cannot be predicted a priori, since he is free; they can be discovered only by examination. The world, as Christian theism conceives, is thus an ideal field for the application of scientific method, with its twin techniques of observation and experiment.


The Vedic theologian will have no problem with Foster’s opening remarks regarding the orderliness of the Creator’s work. It is the second half of Foster’s statement which will cause disagreement. God’s ‘freedom’ does not automatically rule out the possibility of a priori ‘prediction.’ A truly free God may, if he so desires, elaborately explain the past, present, or future. To deny God this right is to limit God. If God so chooses to explain the particular regularities and patterns which it [the world] will embody, then the role of science is no longer discovery but confirmation. The “application of the scientific method, with its twin techniques of observation and experiment” will then be used to confirm, rather than discover anew, what God has revealed.

            It may be argued that the impetus for scientific investigation will be diminished if the conclusions of such investigation are already accepted truths from the start. This is not necessarily so. Rather, scientific efforts would be directed to demonstrate the truth of Vedic formulas by practical creations meant for human benefit. Many ‘modern’ discoveries and inventions are indicated in Vedic texts and were utilized by Vedic practitioners thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, the scientific ability to demonstrate the truth of these Vedic statements is now lost, for it is a subtle science requiring a degree of spiritual advancement rarely found in the present age.

Though Peterson et al may argue that the presuppositions about nature and the knowledge of nature found in the Judeo-Christian world-view were particularly conducive to the advancement of science, it could be equally argued that it was specifically due to the lack of substantive information regarding nature within the tradition’s foundational scriptures which forced thinkers to observe, hypothesize, and experiment for themselves. Certainly it is not our intention here to belittle one religious tradition to favor another. Rather, we subscribe to the view that there is one supreme God who is worshipped within a multiplicity of religious traditions. If it be found that the Vedic tradition more perfectly melded religion and science that did the Judeo-Christian conception, it is no way a loss to the latter, for both traditions are but sub-sets of divine revelation.

We shall conclude by calling upon another esteemed disciple of Prabhupada, theologian William Deadwyler. His remarks are also drawn from Synthesis of Science and Religion [pp. 366-8]:

            The Sanskrit word veda means “knowledge,” but modern people categorize the Vedas–India’s ancient books of knowledge–as “scripture,” having to do with religion as opposed to knowledge and science. This opposition between religion and science, however, is a modern phenomenon, a product of the historical process of secularization. We are now beginning to realize that this split between religion and science is a critical problem–even the critical problem–for humanity, and perhaps the Vedas themselves, coming from a culture that antedated such divided consciousness, can give us help in our search for a renewed wholeness.


            I think those of us gathered here to explore possibilities for the synthesis of science and religion recognize that the present estrangement between them constitutes a critical problem for the  modern world. Indeed, this problem, in various guises, can be seen as the central dilemma of Western culture since the Renaissance. Science, sundered from religion, is blind, unable to guide human life according to ultimate ends; religion, sundered from science, is lame, incapable of conveying its vision into the thick of our actual commerce with the world. The religion and science of modernity, conceived in mutual disjunction, embodied in separate institutions, and grown to conscious self-definition over against one another, have both emerged historically as handicapped and unwholesome caricatures of the whole they ought to be–the single human enterprise we may call either a truly religious science or a truly scientific religion.


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