Krista's Journal: Content with the Limits of Religion and Science

November 22, 2007

This conversation with V.V. Raman provides an intriguing glimpse into the rich global dialogue between science and religion that is obscured by Western headlines about a science-religion clash. It also serves as a kind of introduction to Hinduism, a tradition that shapes one billion people, most of them in India. Deeply rooted in Indian culture, Hinduism was only identified in the 19th century, by European scholars, as a formal religion. V.V. Raman prefers to describe it as "a cultural religious world view that has given rise to an impressive body of sacred literature, magnificent art, great music, majestic architecture, and profound philosophy."

As vitally as any other tradition, Hinduism has kept an awareness and practice of art as life-giving at the very center of daily lived spirituality. V.V. Raman's words in this program, and the music and readings that accompany them convey some sense of this.

And this overarching regard for beauty is not unrelated to the fact that Hinduism has historically avoided a point-counterpoint between science and religion. It is a reflection of a core Hindu insight that multiple forms of knowledge have a place in human life. In V.V. Raman's mother tongue of Tamil, language itself distinguishes between the word "why" as a causative question — the way science approaches a problem — and "why" as an investigation of purpose — the way religion might approach the same problem, with very different results.

As V.V. Raman sees it, knowledge conveyed by art and poetry and beauty are not "irrational" but "transrational" — and as critical in human life as rationality. He uses the analogy of a sonnet. Logic can analyze it powerfully in terms of structure; the human spirit will plumb it for meaning. He juxtaposes shared elements of both science and religion to explore the complementarity of these two realms of human endeavor. He's written intriguingly, for example, about "numbers" in science and religion. He experiences the multitude of deities in Hindu spirituality as an expression of the kindred insight of science and religion that there are no simple answers to complex questions.

Ultimately, V.V. Raman is also content with the limits of both science and religion, and the room they leave separately and together for mystery. Karma and reincarnation, for example, are not concepts he would defend with his scientific colleagues, but neither does he believe that they can claim any more authoritative convictions about "post-mortem existence." And so, where our culture assumes cognitive dissonance, Raman says, he consistently arrives at an "experiential consonance." I suspect that this consonance is experienced by many of us.

Recommended Reading

Image of Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections
Author: Varadaraja Raman
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 588 pages

Variety in Religion and Science is a compilation of short essays V.V. Raman has written for colleagues and friends almost every day for many years. He reflects with great knowledge and humility on world events, concepts in science and religion, and historic figures from the arts, science, and religion -- from Euclid, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Gandhi.

Voices on the Radio

is emeritus professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's written many books including Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections.