From Back to Godhead
By Navina Syama Dasa
Can the investigation of God through the method of Krishna consciousness really be called scientific?
God: The Evidence; The God Delusion; God: The Failed Hypothesis; The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Apparently, writing about God is the latest rage among scientists, both theistic and atheistic. Many of these authors have also been invited to speak to college crowds, and they are causing quite a stir. But is this really the best way to approach the question of God’s existence? Conventional science, particularly in its “hard” forms such as physics and biology, doesn’t seem to offer the right tools and techniques with which to come up with a definitive answer. On the other hand, many religious approaches seem to preclude the rigorous application of reason and the opportunity for individual experimentation. Between these two less than satisfactory alternatives, the Vedic literature of ancient India offers what could be a promising third option. To satisfy ourselves that this is so, we’ll first have to look at why conventional science can’t get the job done, and then move on to understand how the spiritual science of the Vedic literature succeeds in this task without compromising what modern people like about science.
Two cardinal doctrines present major obstacles to conventional science as a way to know God. First is the doctrine of naturalism, the assumption that all natural phenomena have natural causes. (Natural in this context means empirically observable, or perceivable through the five senses.) This is a foundational assumption of scientific research, and its acceptance in effect rules out any reality beyond the reach of the senses.
That being said, there are somewhat softer interpretations of this doctrine. Some scientists distinguish between metaphysical and methodological naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism is the view, described above, that behind everything in the world is an empirical cause. According to this view, the sun rises because of the rotation of the earth, and certainly not because it is pulled along by an imperceptible entity riding a golden chariot. Methodological naturalism, however, merely limits how we study the world to empirical observations (things we can touch, see, feel, and so on), while not necessarily ruling out supernatural explanations for these observations. According to this view, a chariot could possibly pull the sun, but the only acceptable way to test this proposition would be to use telescopes and similar instruments. Thus, supernatural phenomena may exist, but supernatural means are not permitted as a way to verify them. Although this perspective is more accommodating, we’ll see below that it is still unnecessarily restrictive for one serious about investigating the existence of God.
The second hindrance is the doctrine of falsification. Popularized by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, this doctrine holds that for a statement to be considered scientific, one must be able to prove it false. In other words, if scientist A makes some claim but there is no way for scientist B to show that it is wrong, then the claim is considered unscientific. It can’t be tested, so it’s disregarded. An interesting consequence of accepting such a criterion for science, and one we’ll explore more fully later, is that it becomes impossible to prove anything. One is only able to disprove.
Nevertheless, such is the functioning of science under the doctrine of falsification. Science accepts a theory if it can be used to reliably explain and predict natural phenomena and if no data contradict it. If it is refuted at some point, then another theory is accepted, and so the cycle continues. While the mercurial knowledge produced from such an approach might be acceptable for other purposes, it is not a proper basis for understanding God.
Why do these twin doctrines of conventional science, naturalism and falsification, become so problematic when applied to the study of the divine? Because they’re unwarranted blinders. Let’s perform a thought experiment to find out how. Suppose vehement and gifted theists, peerless in their execution of conventional scientific investigation and consummate in their dedication to an omnipotent divine being, suddenly took over all the great research universities and institutes. Given decades of time, what is the farthest such God-fearing geniuses could take us? They could surely discredit every scientific theory ever proposed that did not include a rigorous conception of God. They could also propose elaborate models of their own that both centered on God and perfectly accorded with every piece of empirical data ever observed. But the million-dollar question is, Would they have proven the existence of God?
The answer is no. They would certainly have turned atheism into an unreasonable stance that no intelligent person could hope to justify. And they would have elaborated a comprehensive picture of the world as dependent on God in every way. But they would not have proven that God exists. Naturalism would prevent them from introducing data and evidence that transcend the five senses, and falsification would prevent them from establishing any kind of conclusive truth. Shackled by these ideological handcuffs of conventional science that limit it to disproving theories using natural data, they would never be able to produce positive evidence of a supernatural entity.
So where does that leave us, the spiritually inquisitive rationalists? If even in such an ideal scenario, conventional science could not give us the satisfaction of knowing that God exists, are we left with only blind faith in what the authorities tell us? Is there no way to employ rational methods of observation and experimentation to understand the Supreme? As it happens, the Vedic scriptures of ancient India provide us with just such an alternative.
To appreciate the value of what the Vedic literature offers, we must first understand that the scientific establishment cherishes naturalism and falsification because these help distinguish science from pseudoscience. Today’s researchers are intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment, a movement in eighteenth-century Europe that shifted the gaze of humanity from the heavens to the earth and whose proponents esteemed reason and progress over dogma and tradition. As such, members of the scientific community constantly seek to delimit science as a way to explore the world with reason and the intellect, a way that is open to individual endeavor and initiative. In contrast, they vigilantly expel to the realm of pseudoscience any approaches they see as dependent on subjective emotion or passive reception, which for them usually includes religion of any kind. Both naturalism and falsification aid such a separation, and hence mainstream researchers have come to accept them as doctrines.
Granting that the motive underlying their acceptance is bona fide—distinguishing disciplined inquiry from whimsical allegation—a critical question is whether these doctrines are the only means to achieve this end. Not if we engage the Vedic wisdom. While avoiding the pitfalls that naturalism and falsification present, the Vedic literature gives a way to get knowledge that is nevertheless rigorous, systematic, and verifiable. Indeed, the traditional Vedic method of knowing God (as presented in scriptures like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam) is a model of good science, albeit a science adapted in unavoidable ways to the study of spirit.
Methods of the Soft Sciences
The first (rather unremarkable) adaptation is the realization that God is a person who must be dealt with accordingly, not an inert substratum of the universe that that we can dig up and put on a microscope slide. Therefore if we are to look to science as a model, we must look to the social rather than the natural sciences.
Certainly many “hard” scientists scoff at the idea of disciplines like psychology, sociology, and economics being considered science at all, but that has not stopped legions of thoughtful people from trying to apply the scientific method to the study of human beings and their societies. These social scientists are simply forced to take into account qualities in their subjects, such as self-awareness and self-determination, that natural scientists, who research inert matter or sub-human species, generally take the liberty of ignoring. Since even the study of humans as conscious agents is a matter for social science, why would we use the methods of the natural sciences to study God? If anything, He is superhuman.
How then might we define the spiritual social science of the Vedic literature? We can define conventional science, social or otherwise, as “the objective observation of the natural realm by the senses and their extensions.” But given that God is known in the Vedic literature as Adhokshaja (“beyond the reach of the senses”) and Achintya (“inconceivable”), the need to adapt this definition to the study of transcendence becomes obvious. A definition of spiritual science that takes God’s transcendental nature into account might be “the subjective experience of the transcendental realm by the consciousness, in accordance with the direction of revealed scripture.”
Is this new definition no longer scientific? Srila Prabhupada apparently didn’t think so; he referred to the practice of spiritual life as the science of self-realization. Let’s review the components of this “science of self-realization” and see if such a perspective is justified.
To begin with, our new definition of science involves subjectivity rather than objectivity. But then, modern science (through the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and quantum mechanics) has brought the observer into the equations of physics and prevented him or her from remaining safely on the sidelines. Thus, the presence and perceptions of the person doing the measuring color every act of measurement, and there is no such thing as knowledge independent of the knower. Yes, these truths operate on the infinitesimal quantum scale, but the point is that conventional science has essentially shown objectivity to be illusory, so we can hardly be criticized for talking about a science based on subjective experience.
The next component of our definition of spiritual science is the use of consciousness, rather than our physical senses, as our primary research instrument. This obviously violates the doctrine of methodological naturalism, which restricts measurements to instruments that extend the senses. But is our definition still scientific in meaningful ways?
Consider the principle of isomorphism, which dictates that the instrument used to measure a certain phenomenon should be appropriately matched to that phenomenon. To depend solely on the five senses (and their mechanical extensions) in our search for God violates this principle; they can only perceive matter, whereas our subject is spiritual. Considering this limitation, it is only reasonable to replace them with a more appropriate measuring tool. To dogmatically cling to only those instruments with which one is comfortable or familiar—in the face of their obvious inappropriateness—is the sign of an irrational researcher, not a good scientist. As the famous chemist John Platt wrote several decades ago in the journal Science:
Beware of the man of one method or one instrument, either experimental or theoretical. He tends to become method-oriented rather than problem-oriented. The method-oriented man is shackled; the problem-oriented man is at least reaching freely toward what is most important.
If we are to successfully research the existence of God, as good scientists we must use whatever method is best suited to the problem at hand. The Vedic literature informs us that to understand the supreme spirit, the supreme consciousness, the supreme self, the only suitable instrument is our own spirit, our own consciousness, our own self. Indeed, only in our capacity as portions of His divinity can we connect with God.
Using Consciousness to Investigate God
Having sagaciously chosen consciousness as our instrument, how should we employ it? This is where the guidance of revealed scripture becomes crucial. Following scripture essentially means studying God on His own terms, for He is the ultimate source of scripture.
Adapting to the needs and demands of a subject is not alien to conventional social science research. Consent and access are of paramount importance, because human beings cannot be manipulated against their will as if they were mere vials of chemicals or laboratory chimpanzees. If these considerations are critical in studying ordinary people, we should not be surprised to find they are important in studying God. If we are to succeed, we need Him to consent to our study and grant us access to Him. We might find this subordinate status unpalatable, but we must accept that we are trying to meet with the busiest, richest, most powerful, and most famous person in existence.
Social science researchers often speak of critically positioned persons who can help them make important contacts as “gatekeepers.” As it turns out, God has his own gatekeepers, and we need to work through them to gain an audience with God, just as we would work through a corporate hierarchy to arrange a meeting with a CEO.
Fortunately for us, in the Bhagavad-gita God has elaborately presented the procedures by which we can gain access to Him. Among these the most foundational is the need to accept a guru. Is such a move unscientific? Not at all. Just as any doctoral student learns the art of research from an advisor, so too the spiritual aspirant must take instruction from an expert. Seasoned researchers, of either spirit or matter, can pass on finer points of technique and practice.
The Vedic approach to knowing God thus violates the doctrine of naturalism in its reliance on supernatural methods, yet it is surprisingly consistent with the spirit of science, and even many of its essential principles. It is an improved science, however, in that it allows access to an entirely different dimension of reality, systematically and with repeatability.
What of the other impediment to conventional scientific knowledge of God, the doctrine of falsification? How does the science of the Vedic literature address this limitation?
Two Perspectives on Knowledge
Once again a bit of background discussion is needed before we can answer such questions. Conventional science and Vedic science have dramatically divergent perspectives on knowledge. The former holds that human beings can’t know anything positively or independently. Rather, based on the empirical data we gather by observing and interacting with the physical world, we constantly refine what we consider truth. Our knowledge base is thus relative and ever changing.
Ultimately, such a state of affairs really means we don’t know anything. I may say I know that the sun will rise tomorrow or that there is a country called China halfway around the world from the U.S., but my so-called knowledge is based only on my experience. If tomorrow the sun doesn’t rise or I fly to China only to find out it doesn’t exist, I would simply revise what I considered truth. Today’s dependable knowledge would become tomorrow’s mythology. In light of such an understanding of knowledge, the doctrine of falsification makes sense. We can’t really know what is true, so let’s just spend our time showing what is definitely not true, and take what’s left over as good enough for now.
The Vedic scriptures present a different view of knowledge. They claim that we can know things for certain, intrinsically and independently. This absolute knowledge is not subject to the fluxes of our ever-changing world. Not surprisingly, this principle applies most powerfully and most gloriously to the one question we should most want to answer: Is there a God? Sounds wonderful, we may say, but is this purportedly absolute knowledge scientific? It certainly seems so. Although presented in revealed scripture, one need not accept it blindly, based solely on someone else’s word or experience. True to the spirit of scientific inquiry, it can be verified by individual endeavor.
More Scientific than Science
In fact, one could argue that this process is even more scientific than conventional science. After all, why do many people choose science, rather than, say, religion, as a means to acquire knowledge? I assume it is because if they are going to have to rely on information from some outside source, over some sort of authority figure, they prefer their own senses (which are an outside source in that I am different from my eyes, which can and do deceive me). At least then they are involved in the process and not merely passive recipients. But the Vedic literature boldly declares that you don’t have to rely on any outside source—you can know for yourself. Knowledge does not have to stay externally dependent, on either an authority figure or our own senses, but can become something genuinely internal. What could be more satisfying to people who want to see for themselves?
In this way the Vedic method allows us to transcend the restrictions of falsification and acquire true positive knowledge, but in a way harmonious with scientific ideals like independent observation and verification.
Of course, we begin by accepting the version of scripture on faith, but again, is that really so unscientific? Every conventional research investigation begins with a hypothesis, a formulation of what the researcher expects to find. This hunch can come from theory, observation, previous research, life experience, intuition—just about anywhere. As long as the methods used in investigating the hypothesis are rigorous, its source is irrelevant. So why not start from scripture?
Indeed, even before we begin our investigation, scripture plays an important role. Lest we have trouble imagining what it feels like to have such positive knowledge, the Vedic scriptures use analogies to inspire us. Lord Krishna explains in the opening of the most confidential chapter of the Bhagavad-gita (Chapter 9) that the knowledge He is about to describe gives “direct experience” (pratyaksha). Although the subject being discussed is clearly spiritual, the Sanskrit word used is the same as that used in physical sensation. And if that doesn’t give us enough of an idea, the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.2.42) assures us:
Devotion, direct experience of the Supreme Lord, and detachment from other things—these three occur simultaneously for one who has taken shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the same way that pleasure, nourishment, and relief from hunger come simultaneously and increasingly, with each bite, for a person engaged in eating.
By faithfully following the procedures God has given in the Vedic literature, we can expect to experience Him in as tangible a way as we experience a meal. And it doesn’t stop at the internal. Rather, both the Gita (6.30) and the Bhagavatam (11.2.45) inform us that at a certain stage of advancement, we’ll see God in everything and everyone.
At this point it should be clear that what the Vedic literature offers is a genuinely scientific way to know God. Rather than invoking mere sentimentality or blind faith, it sets forth a coherent process that incorporates both reason and individual endeavor, and then invites willing souls to make their own investigation. So, for those of us who truly want to research the existence of God, the predicament is clear: Running on the two rails of naturalism and falsification, the locomotive of conventional science can take us some distance in the right direction. But sooner or later we have to board the airplane of Vedic science to reach our desired destination. So why wait until the end of the line?