Vivekananda believed that Religion should be subjected to scientific methods of investigation.
The third and concluding part of our series on the Swami and his views on science.
When it comes to the relationship between science and spirituality, the prevalent view among most sceptical and materialistic scientists regards spiritual wisdom and religious scriptures not just as non-science, but as essentially nonsense. Naturally, Swami Vivekananda's or any other religious figure's views on science would be suspect, unless and until they are corroborated by "hard" data. For a typical proponent of such an "anti"-view, we might turn to Richard Dawkins who considers religion as delusion made up of a "fixed false belief".
A tempting, but arguably disappointing "middle ground" seemed to be offered by the celebrated evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). To avoid conflict between science and religion, he proposed a clear demarcation of each domain, labeling them both with the impressive sounding term "magesteria" to legitimate their separate but apparently equal spheres. These magesteria, separate fields of authority, do not overlap, as indicated by the principle commonly known as NOMA, or "non-overlapping magisteria." In the essay that popularised the expression, "Non Overlapping Magisteria", Gould writes: "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven."
Gould was harking back to well-known traditional distinctions between practical knowledge, which helps us understand and manipulate matter, and spiritual wisdom, which helps us know ourselves or God. In Vedic terms, this would be apara (limited, worldly) vs para (unlimited, transcendent); vidya (knowledge) or vyavaharika (empirical, practical) vs adhyatmika (spiritual, non-material) knowledge.
To make his proposal more complex, Gould postulated a no man's land between the two magisteria, but he also acknowledged that there could be areas of inquiry which did not have a clear no man's land, citing evolutionary facts and moral arguments as clear examples. He also pleaded for "a respectful, even loving concord between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions."
Gould was a strong proponent of respectful argument among scientists and religious teachers. "Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk."
Gould's proposition may be considered firmly to emanate from the world of science. Unfortunately, his views, though cited by scientists, are often misrepresented. Dawkins, for instance, disagrees with Gould's principle of NOMA. In an interview to Time magazine, he famously said: "I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science."
Prominent scientists at the forefront of this exercise today propound that religion is opposed to inquiry and clouds the mind of those who, if they were only willing to be guided by reason, would agree to the conclusions supported by the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and reject the blind adherence to revealed authority that characterises religious belief. Moreover, science is silent on issues such as salvation or afterlife, but religion often ventures into areas pertaining to physics, cosmology, or biology, where science has established itself as the most reliable source of what is true or possible. Even so, scientific "narratives" are also subject to and share similar limitations as other narratives, whether these are in the humanities or social studies. As Stanley Fish points out, "with respect to a single demand—the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions—science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest)."
Article by Makarand Paranjape Apr 04, 2017
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