Divine Causation and the Laws of Nature
By Richard L. Thompson
What is the relationship between science and religion? Some see it as one of inevitable conflict, others see it as harmonious, and still others see differences that they hope to reconcile. For many years, I have been one of the latter. I have felt that science has fundamentally challenged the very roots of religion, but that this challenge can be answered in a way that agrees with basic scientific and religious principles. Framing such answers was the purpose of the essays in this book (which were written between 1986 and 2000). However, on reviewing these essays, I have come to realize another potential relationship between religion and science. Both religion and science can cross fertilize one another with inspiring new ideas that may ultimately culminate in a synthesis that goes beyond our present understanding of either science or religion.
The particular religion that I am following in this book is Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a subdivision of the Hindu faith of India. Vaishnavism is a strongly monotheistic tradition devoted to the worship of the Supreme Being as Vishnu or Krishna. Gaudiya Vaishnavism, in particular, was founded in the 16th century in Bengal by the famous saint Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Gaudiya refers to Gauda-desha, a name for Bengal, but Gaudiya Vaishnavism is widespread in India and has taken root throughout the world.
Although its nomenclature may seem strange to people of Western background, there is a fundamental similarity between the basic teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Both traditions hold that the material universe is created and maintained by a supreme personal God. As a result, both give rise to similar issues regarding the relation between religion and science. Thus many of the essays in this book are also relevant to Christianity.
While on the topic of nomenclature, I should note that followers of Vaishnavism regard their tradition as Vedic. The term “Vedic” refers to followers of the ancient scriptures called the Vedas. Modern scholars generally limit these scriptures to the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva—which they date to the centuries following 1500 B.C. However, Vaishnavas, and Hindus in general, tend to use the word Vedic in a broader context. They include as Vedic a series of texts, including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata Purana or Srimad-Bhagavatam. They may also use the term Vedic to refer to more recent texts that follow the basic Vedic tradition. In this book, I use the term Vedic in this broad sense.
The essays are arranged more or less chronologically under subject. The first essay deals with the fundamental question of how matter can be controlled by a transcendent God while, at the same time, obeying the laws of physics. A possible answer is based on the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, which allows for the possibility that a transcendental being, operating beyond time, could choose branches of the universal wave function in such a way as to bring about desired courses of action in the material universe. Looking back on this work, it is interesting that theological ideas dealing with the trans-temporal nature of God mesh nicely with trans-temporal approaches to quantum physics.
The question of how God relates to the laws of physics has been the cause of a great deal of soul searching among scientists. What it comes down to is that something has to give. The known laws of physics do not contain any terms which express divine will. Therefore, if divine will does influence matter, either it wills that everything should precisely obey physical laws or it must in some sense violate these laws. Essays two and three look at this dilemma from the standpoint of science, Christianity, and Vaishnavism.
The first three essays have examined how science must be modified if it is to allow for the survival of basic tenets of religion. The fourth essay looks at ways in which religion may retreat in order to allow for well-established findings of science and modern scholarship. In Vaishnavism, as in other religious traditions, there is a great deal of “mythological” material which seems to directly contradict modern thinking. How are we to deal with such material, while at the same time preserving what is valuable in the tradition?
One approach is to, in effect, “kick God upstairs.” By arguing that God is totally transcendental to matter, and by interpreting all of God’s material actions as symbolic, all conflict with science can be resolved. This approach is compatible with some strictly monistic approaches to metaphysics, but it does not agree with theistic schools of thought that attribute to God an active role in nature.
A less drastic approach is to give indirect interpretations to scriptural topics which are in strong conflict with modern thinking. Historical chronology is an important example. In Indian tradition, the history of human life is said to extend over vast periods called yuga cycles, each of which lasts for 4,320,000 years. This was rejected by early British Indologists, who adhered to Biblical chronology with its creation date of around 4000 B.C. In response to this, the 19th-century Vaishnava teacher, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, gave an interpretation of Indian chronology that compressed it into the Biblical framework. He likewise stated, in some writings, that the heavens and hells described in Vaishnava scriptures were imaginary.
Inevitably, this interpretive approach gives rise to the question of how far we should go. Are some topics open to interpretation while others are sacrosanct? How do we decide?
One approach is to view all of the mythological material in the scriptures as referring to another dimension of reality. According to this idea, all of the entities mentioned in the texts really exist, but in another world. Our only link with this higher-dimensional world (at least while we are living) is through visions, in which information from the higher world is projected as through a window into this world. I discuss the pros and cons of this idea and go on to consider how it can be extended by allowing more things to pass through the window. Here again, we encounter the question of how far we should go.
The question of the plurality of religions also arises in this context. The mythological systems of different religions tend to be mutually exclusive, at least at a first glance. If we are to interpret mythology as being true in some sense, then what mythology do we choose, and how do we reconcile conflicting claims? In this regard, the Bhagavatam states that intelligent species throughout the universe follow different Vedic systems that are adapted to their particular natures. This is a truly universal definition of “Vedic,” which includes all religious systems on this planet and beyond.
The fifth essay in this section deals with the topic of miracles, starting with the famous “miracle of the milk,” in which milk offered to Ganesha seemed to mysteriously disappear. Miracles are apparent violations of natural law which may point to the operation of higher laws that allow divine influence to percolate into the material world. As such, miracles have generally been unacceptable to scientists, and they also pose a problem for religious authorities. However, they are popular among people in general since they tend to confirm religious faith.
Finally, the sixth essay discusses a number of areas where there are possible conflicts or synergistic interactions between science and religion. These include God and the laws of physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics, the brain and consciousness, near death experiences, extraordinary events (miracles), the fossil record, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. I conclude that there is tremendous scope for the development of new findings and ideas through the interaction of science and religion. But we should avoid blocking such developments by scientific or religious dogmatism.
Under the heading of the fossil record,
I compare the scientific chronology of the geological ages with Indian
chronology. Here we see a remarkable agreement between the two chronological
systems. This shows that there may be more than one way of interpreting
dian chronology in an attempt to bring it into agreement with modern science. It again raises the question of how the process of scriptural interpretation is to be understood.
In the second section of the book, I include two essays dealing with theories of physics. The first deals with David Bohm’s theory of the implicate order, in which information encrypted into matter “un-folds” and becomes manifest. Bohm intended this as a theory of monism, in which everything is enfolded in oneness within the Absolute. By making a comparison with the technology of phase conjugate mirrors, I show how Bohm’s ideas can be used to allow for the windows from higher realms that I mentioned above.
Bohm follows Eastern tradition in pointing out that the Absolute is beyond human reason. This is a serious impediment to progress in rational understanding. But I point out that if a sentient higher intelligence is on the other side of the window, there is the possibility—also well known in Eastern tradition—of learning through direct communication with the Absolute.
In the second essay of this section, I discuss how in the theory of relativity, time for one observer may pass more slowly than it does for another. A similar idea turns up in the Bhagavatam, where it is explained that time passes more slowly on the higher planet of Brahmaloka than it does on the earth. This leads to the idea that both time and space may be radically transformed for an observer who passes out of the material universe and enters into transcendental timelessness.
The third section of the book deals with consciousness and the mind-body problem. Here the first essay begins by examining the idea of artificial life through computer simulation. By drawing on ideas from the Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita, I develop the idea of virtual reality as a model for the relation between mind and brain. Interestingly, this was written at the time when Jaron Lanier was experimenting with his early virtual realities. (The virtual reality model is developed further in my book, Maya: The World as Virtual Reality.)
The second essay examines the process of vision and the much ridiculed notion that vision depends on a “little man in the brain.” The little man idea makes no sense as long as he is required to be a physical subsystem of the brain. However, it does make sense to postulate the existence of a non-physical conscious entity which is the ultimate perceiver of sense data.
In the third essay I make a historical digression and examine old Sanskrit texts from India which describe various kinds of automata. These include practical machines that could have actually been built, as well as fictional robots with human capacities. Ironically, the scholar V. Raghavan laments in his discussion of these machines that in India they were not developed technically but were simply used to illustrate the relation between the soul and the body.
The next essay turns to long distance hypnosis. Experiments in Russia by professor Leonid Vasiliev indicate that one mind can somehow influence another, even though there is no known means of physical communication between them. This corresponds to one of the siddhis or natural yogic powers discussed in the Bhagavatam.
Finally, the fifth essay in this section discusses quantum mechanics and consciousness. Although it is popular to suppose that quantum mechanics brings consciousness into physics, the “experimental observers” in the theory are actually physical devices. It is difficult to bring non-physical conscious observers into the quantum picture, because too much consciousness, or consciousness in the wrong places, would interfere with quantum phenomena. The relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness still needs careful consideration.
The fourth section of the book deals with the theory of evolution. This has long been one of the main areas of conflict between scientists and traditional Christians. The latter (including scientists with Christian convictions) have generally been dissatisfied with the Darwinian emphasis on chance and physical causation as the sole basis for the evolution of species. They have proposed alternatives to Darwinism, ranging from guided evolution and the theory of design to literal Biblical creationism.
Since Vaishnavism is a theistic tradition, it tends to generate sim-ilar responses to the Darwinian theory of evolution. One of the most basic responses is to critique different areas of evolutionary theory, pointing out drawbacks. Thus in the first essay I discuss the theory that living organisms arose from disorganized molecules on the early earth. Although this theory is essential for a purely physical account of the origin of species, it is still lacking in supporting evidence and an adequate theoretical model.
It is easy to point out flaws in the Darwinian theory of evolution, but what is the alternative? In the second essay I point out that the Vaishnava texts assume descent with modification, and in that sense they agree with the theory of evolution. However, the process of descent begins not with primitive organisms, but with higher beings whose bodies are made of subtle forms of energy not known to modern science. For descent with modification to pass from such beings to physically embodied organisms as we know them, there must be some process whereby subtle energy transforms into gross physical energy. Or perhaps this is simply a process in which information on a subtle level is transmitted through a suitable “window” into the physical realm. This is an area where extensive research is needed.
In the last essay in this section, I turn to the “rational seeds” (rationes seminales) discussed by Saint Augustine in the early days of Christianity. Augustine proposed that subtle seeds were planted in nature at the time of creation, and later they produced living organisms through a process of natural unfolding. Some scientists have seen this as a forerunner of the idea of evolution. (See “Does God Go Against the Laws of Nature?” in Section I.) However, Augustine’s idea is closer to the Vedic idea of subtle bijas, or generative seed forms.
The final section of the book deals with cosmology and ancient history. One persistent theme of the Vedic literature is that thousands of years ago (say, about five thousand) there flourished a highly advanced Vedic civilization that was worldwide in scope. Taken literally, this seems to fly in the face of archeology and modern historical scholarship. Nonetheless, there are tantalizing hints that some kind of culture exhibiting Vedic themes did leave traces around the world. At the very least, there seems to have been an extensive cultural diffusion of ideas that show up in old Indian texts.
Much of the evidence for this has to do with astronomy and cosmology. In the first two essays in this section, I show that common astronomical themes can be found in old stories from cultures around the world. The specific shared details of many of these stories suggests that they are products of cultural diffusion, rather than independent invention.
In the third essay I examine a detailed cosmology presented in the Fifth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. This brings us back to the question of how scriptural texts are to be interpreted. Taken literally, the cosmology of the Fifth Canto seems to be an imaginary, poetic exhibition that has little in common with the findings of modern astronomy. However, a closer examination of the text reveals an overlay of several distinct layers of interpretation. These are: (1) a description of the earth globe in polar or stereographic projection, (2) a realistic map of the solar system out to Saturn, (3) a topographical map of a region of south-central Asia, and (4) a map of the celestial realm of the demigods. These interpretations indicate a surprising level of scientific sophistication. The existence of distinct, valid interpretations of the same text suggests that a simple literal approach to old Sanskrit texts may be inadequate to reveal their real meaning.
The fourth essay examines the second of these interpretations in greater depth. There I argue that the ring-shaped features of the “earth disk” (Bhu-mandala) in the Fifth Canto correspond accurately with the geocentric orbits of the planets as given by modern astronomy. (I note in passing that heliocentric orbits can be cast into geocentric form, simply by changing the point of reference to the earth.) This topic is discussed in greater detail in my book Mysteries of the Sacred Universe, which includes a statistical analysis of the correlation between planetary orbits and features of Bhu-mandala.
This orbit correlation requires us to know the length of the yojana, the unit of distance used in the Fifth Canto to define the structure of Bhu-mandala. If the orbit correlation is real, then a yojana of a precisely determined length should have been in use historically. In the last essay in this section, I show that there is in fact historical evidence from Egypt for such a yojana length. This suggests that in ancient times there must have existed advanced astronomical knowledge that was shared by India and Egypt. Such knowledge would have to antedate the relatively crude astronomy of the known Greek and Near-Eastern texts.
In summary, by bringing together modern scientific ideas and Vedic literature, many interesting ideas arise. It is widely believed that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion, and that this can be reconciled only by either drastically editing religion to agree with science or drastically doing violence to science in order to bring it into line with religion. However, these essays suggest a different approach. Science and religion can cross-fertilize one another and give rise to possible fruitful ideas that might not have been thought of from the standpoint of science or religion, taken separately.
In the publication of this work, I was assisted by Jayadvaita Swami, who edited most of the articles, Yamaraja Dasa, who designed both the book and its cover, and Christopher Beetle, who helped in the production in different ways. I want to express my gratitude to them.
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