The provocatively titled second session began by drawing attention to the minutiae, so the title of the conference was a good place to begin: What do we mean by science and religion? How have the history of these institutions been constructed? What is the nature or quality of doing science? What is the nature or quality of doing religion? What are the implications of these answers? A useful way, therefore, to begin probing any discourse, is to tease apart what is considered its foundation. And especially, dwelling on the seemingly innocuous ‘and’ in the phrase ‘Science and Religion’. Resting on the idea of union, it becomes a difficult yet interesting exercise.
The more common debate usually arises in pitting certain notions of what constitutes science and religion, against one another. For instance, one side argues that science is objective and religion is subjective, or that science is universal and religion is particular. In order to move away from these tired and repeated constructions, we must begin anew with what we take for granted. The task before us, now, is the following: do science and religion have some aspects in common? What could they be? What about the faith in science and the rationality in religion? How do we define spirituality in difference to religion? What is the role of spirituality in science? Asiatic cultures, for instance, do not have ideas of science and religion that are similar to their counterparts in Western Philosophy. The most popular example cited is Ayurveda. There, despite systematic, rigorous recording being internal to the practice of Ayurveda, the discipline is not seen as an evidence-based science.
This discussion tackles two inevitable arguments: 1) The problem of faith and blind superstition (often associated with religion), which leads to an important distinction between science and religion, and which is cited as the reason to separate these categories from each other firmly; 2) The idea of God – How does one make sense of this entity? What do I see as evidence of its existence? What kind of a thing is God? Is it material, physical, conscious, spiritual? Can God cause things? This last question is important; it leads us to the question of authority. The schism between science and religion began with a reaction to the problem of authority, more specifically the conflict with the Catholic Church in 15th century Europe, with Copernicus and then Galileo.
Sundar Sarukkai pointed out three ways in which we could engage with this debate. First, the comparative approach would rely on taking common frameworks from where science and religion could be probed. For example, the praxis of science must also be understood in context of their institutions, while religion is, too, closely linked to its own institutions – think, for instance, of how Newton had used science to prove the existence of God. A second way to enter the debate would be through the ‘disagreement approach’. It involves a study of the points of conflict between science and religion, such as: how does science look at ‘god’? And the third approach, probably the least useful in terms of an enquiry, would be ‘indifference’. It is, basically, the assertion that science has nothing to do in religion, and that they cannot speak to each other, because they do not understand each other.
Significantly, there are points of contact between science and religion. Both address questions and mysteries, for which they seek to answer through their practice, albeit through different explanations. The first question that links science and religion is that of origin – the discipline of science is comparatively new given the history of others like philosophy and religion. Moreover, it was used meaningfully only in the 18th century. How much is science indebted to religion? If religion and philosophy are seen as the parents of science, how do we understand their cross-pollination?
Second is the theme of nature, which is the central contentious question. All world traditions begin with the worship of nature, in their textual traditions. The idea of god as nature is central, so it begins with worship. Is god nature? Are we a part of nature? God-as-nature leads to the idea of a supernatural force operating upon our existence. But this steps outside of the scope of science, since the latter deals only with what is ‘natural’.
In this context, the figure of Francis Bacon in the 16th-17th centuries gave this debate a historical context. He was behind the earliest conception of experimental method and he suggested that science should be used to question the authority of Aristotelian scholasticism, which dominated his times – he accused them of being too textual and not empirical enough. Bacon’s aim was to discover the laws of nature as they really are, and not through metaphysical truths. He believed that that these truths would be yielded only through experimenting and probing nature for its secrets.
The predictability of science is equally what makes this debate extremely difficult. How does an object, for instance, behave in the same way, time after time? If an object is dropped, it cannot help but fall to the ground, unless there’s something that blocks it. Science may say ‘law of gravity’, or religion could say ‘because god wills it’, but irrespective of whether ‘Nature wills it’ or ‘God wills it’, the governance of nature in specific ways needs to be explained.
According to a variety of views, the structures of science and religion could or should be either dismantled, reinforced, or annihilated. But the first step is to make them visible, and this is how Sundar Sarukkai’s session set the tone for the rest of the conference.