Overview,  Philosophy,  Religion

Reason and Faith

In the Srimad Bhagavatam, a Vedic literature widely regarded as the culmination of Vedanta (which is in itself considered the conclusion of all knowledge), Sage Kapila elaborates the Sankhya theory of material nature to his mother Devahuti and concludes (SB 3.32.32):

Philosophical research culminates in understanding the Supreme Personality of Godhead. After achieving this understanding, when one becomes free from the material modes of nature, he attains the stage of devotional service. Either by devotional service directly or by philosophical research, one has to find the same destination, which is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

This is a remarkable conclusion, because no serious scientist today believes they will discover God through an analysis of material nature. In fact, no one believes that by understanding the real laws of nature, we can be free of those laws.

We go to the university to learn about the laws of nature, not to become free of them. The above verse can thus be paraphrased as the following scientific proposition: A true understanding of the laws of nature will free you from the laws, or the cycle of cause and effect.

The scientific notion that the laws of nature apply to everything in the universe is false in the Vedic view. The laws of nature can be overcome by those who truly know the laws. The laws hold sway over you only so long as you are ignorant of the laws. This freedom from the laws of nature is therefore the real (and unstated) goal of all knowledge.

By formulating laws that cannot be overcome, and treating these as the final state of affairs in nature, science has created the illusion that we are here produced and bound by the laws of nature, incapable of getting out of them.

The real difference between science and religion is that the former accepts our current predicament as the final state of affairs while the latter wants to transcend this predicament. Science concludes that we yearn to know reality only to find out how it binds us. Religion concludes that we yearn to know reality to transcend it.

Before they differ in their ideas, science and religion differ in their values. The shift in our thinking cannot arise only from a shift in the theories; the shift also needs people who would value those ideas. While the ideas can be rationally understood and demonstrated to be superior, the values simply have to be chosen. This requires us to answer the question: Do we want to transcend our current predicament?

The acquisition of true knowledge serves not merely to satisfy the intellectual curiosity about the nature of reality. True jnana, the Sanskrit for knowledge, also has transcendence as the need underlying its search. That need makes the search for jnana a far greater personal prerogative than the satisfaction of intellectual curiosities.

In the Vedic view, one acquires knowledge because knowledge will set you free. By knowing the laws of nature, you can transcend the laws. In fact, the knowledge of the laws is incomplete unless you have transcended them. By that standard, the knowledge of natural laws in current science is incomplete; science only tells us how we can use the laws, but not how we can get out of them.

The central goal for both science and religion is the same according to Vedic philosophy—transcending the laws of nature. This goal can be achieved through devotion (bhakti) or through reason (jnana). Science and religion therefore differ in their methods but have a common goal.

Of course, the ability to transcend the laws of nature itself implies a different notion about the laws. The laws of nature cannot be mechanical forces. They must rather be laws of meaning and choice. Such laws entail a different notion of matter and its laws. This notion about natural laws is useful scientifically in so far as science is defined as the manipulation of matter. But this notion is also relevant to the ultimate goals of transcending the laws of nature.

Manipulating matter and transcending matter seem two contradictory goals today. These instead belong to a continuum in Vedic philosophy.