Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Human Epistemology

With the evolution of human species over the past tens of thousands of years from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens to Modern Humans, human intelligence and skill continued to develop sequentially through the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and then on to Industrial Revolution.

At the earliest of times, human beings were subservient to some presumed superior intelligence or powers and that subservience was based on pure belief. That belief gradually transformed itself to faith. The faith is a collective, communal mental undertaking. Faith, once established, is difficult to root out as it comes as a joint undertaking, although each one individually holds the strands of that faith. The ownership of the faith is then taken up individually as well as collectively and it becomes part of their collective identity. A ‘faith’ can then easily transmute to a ‘religion’. When the group size becomes large enough or a significant number of groups coalesce together to form a community, the ‘faith’ becomes truly a ‘religion’. 

The German historian of religion, Rudolf Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, stated that the feeling of ‘numinous’ was the basis of religion of devotion. This ‘numinous’ feeling placed human beings to subservient position and at the same time uplifted the mystical powers of the unknown to higher levels. This feeling predated the period of human knowledge and understanding and hence, any attempt to explain things such as the beginning of life on Earth and everything on Earth had been passed on to the superior, unknown powers.

Religions of bewildering varieties started to evolve in various parts of the world. Shinto in Japan, Daoism in China, Buddhism in India, Hinduism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Paganism in Europe and other places, Abrahamic religions (all three mono-theistic religions) in the Middle East, the Sky-God in Africa and many more evolved at various times on Earth. It is estimated that altogether more than 10,000 religions evolved on Earth, but most of went extinct or merged with the more dominant religion.  

The main point here is that there is virtually no substantiation that any of these religions originated from the presumed creator. However, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism and few more religions do not rely on single creator or divine authority as the source of the religion. Buddhism believes in eternal cycle of life and death until terminated by nirvana.

On the other hand, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a bewildering variety of sects within these religions believe in Yahweh, God or Allah as the creator who is assumed to be all-powerful, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient and incomprehensible. God is ineffable, beyond any query, and any aspersion or derision of this powerful creator is blasphemous. All knowledge derives from Him and all praise to Him. However, Judaism and Christianity have gradually moved away from blind adherence to such theological doctrines. But Islam or more particularly the Sunnis have maintained total reliance of such narrative. Allah created human beings, there is a day of judgement, heaven and hell awaits life after death etc. Human beings are composed of body and soul – body perishes on death but soul returns to God!

As mentioned above, Judaism, the originator of monotheism through Abraham, had moved away from strict submission to scripture dealing with life after death. Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, said in a speech in 2012 that the question of life after death is non-sensical. But he believed that soul is a living thing which goes back to where it came from, probably to heaven; but body perishes and goes back to soil. He also held the view that heaven and hell don’t exist, but if someone wants to believe in these things, he has the right to do so.

The Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and Islam, both Shia and Sunni, believe strongly in life after death; because without it the whole edifice of the religion incorporating the final day of judgement; existence of heaven and hell etc would collapse. The question may be raised that how the body of the dead person would be revived, at what age and in what condition etc would that revival be and it remained unanswered in these religions. 

These two religions along with Judaism proclaim that the creator created the vast universe, made every animate and inanimate thing follow certain orders etc. The traditional creator had been assigned in these religions essential attributes – He must be present right from or even before the beginning and will last until or beyond the end of creation. He is all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent and He is not accountable to anybody; He can see past, present and future. Any derogatory or disrespectful remark or any question about God’s authority is blasphemous.

The Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza’s (1632 – 1677), view of God was totally dismissive of all these gobbledegook. He showed through the power of logic that God and Nature are one and the same thing. He started from the fundamental logic that there must be a single self-subsistent entity that must be the creator and the creation. This unity of cause (source) and the consequence (creation) must be there to remove the inexplicable question that if creator created everything, then who created the creator? The creator and creation must be merged into one.

Thus, in one big swoop Baruch Spinoza dismissed the fundamental basis of monotheistic religions that there is a transcendent creator who created everything. He argued that the creator and the creation is one in Nature and it is infinite in its expanse and immanence. He held the view that human being is a composite entity of body and mind; body being the material object in space. The movement of the body is due to physical laws of motion whereas thought is a mental state.

Some years previously, French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) advocated mind-body dualism. Descartes’ (pronounced as Dekorta) philosophical view was that mind and body have separate existence within the body. This led to the belief that whereas body was material in character and would eventually decay away on Earth, the soul is subliminal and lives on eternally! It chimed or had been made to chime with the religious views. This philosophical basis remained extant until Spinoza vigorously opposed such un-scientific epistemology.

The most prominent German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, produced his most important contributions to phenomenology and existentialism in his book called ‘Being and Time’. In that book, he argued that ‘Das Sein’ meaning ‘Being’ is the reality of our existence here. After being ‘thrown’ into the world, we strive to move from inauthenticity to authenticity. We strive to gain freedom from social milieu, freedom from archaic prejudices and practical necessities that are not our own making and move away from ‘they-self’ into ‘our-self’. Getting the freedom of ‘our-self’ releases us to attain our ‘Being’ here. But all Beings are inter-connected and there is the ‘unity of Being’. Our authenticity arises from ‘unity of Being’ with all things, making the ‘common Being’ with the universe. So, Heidegger was saying effectively that the ontology (the sense of being that exists as self-contained individual) encompasses the ‘unity of Being’.

One may find a strong resemblance, almost an echo, of Tagore’s philosophical discourse, which he argued when he met Einstein in July, 1930 in Berlin that as individual atoms or molecules join up to form a smooth congruous substance, so does the humanity of individuals form the universal humanity and human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth; without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Where does the religion fit in the epistemology of existentialism and human truth? Religion, any religion for that matter, is fundamentally dogmatic, sectarian and divisive. The edifice of religion is based on unproven axiomatic assumptions and social provincialism. It is no wonder that when Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he answered that he believed in Spinoza’s God “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”.

Thus, he upheld the belief of God as the Nature itself that provides universal humanity.

– Dr Anisur Rahman is an author and columnist.

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Tagore’s and Einstein’s views on Science and Spirituality

On July 14, 1930, Albert Einstein,the most prominent physicist of the 20th century and a Nobel Laureate, welcomed at his home at the outskirts of Berlin, Germany the most prominent Indian philosopher, musician, poet and a Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The two proceeded to have one of the most stimulating, intellectually challenging conversations in the history of science and philosophy exploring the age-old divergence between scientific views and religious perception. This conversation took place at the juncture when a new Renaissance was sweeping across India and a brutal reality was knocking on the door in Europe. The two intellectual giants from two continents representing two different human achievements slogged it out.

A part of the conversation which is modified here a bit was as follow:

EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the universe is Human Truth.

Let me take a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may feel continuous and solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to human world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

EINSTEIN: There are two different perceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity; (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.

EINSTEIN: This is the purely human perception of the universe.

TAGORE: There can be no other perception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.

EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.

TAGORE: Yes, one of eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.

TAGORE: No.

EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this perception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.

TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through Man.

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my perception is right, but that is my religion.

TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how else could we know Truth?

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.

TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity (সীমার মাঝে অসীম তুমি). But such a Truth cannot belong to science only. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.

EINSTEIN: So according to your perception, which may be the Indian perception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.

TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore, the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.

EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.

TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.

EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.

TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.

EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.

TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the Universal Mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.

EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.

TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time, it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.

In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper, literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.

EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.

Although it may outwardly seem that these two great intellectual giants of the 20th century held divergent and sometimes conflicting views on science and spirituality, truth and beauty, but following deeper inspection, one would find that their views were remarkably similar and almost convergent.

For example, when Einstein was asked some years later whether he believed in God, Einstein replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God. His full answer was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world; not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.”

Compare that with Tagore’s view on spiritual being. He said that as atoms join up to form a continuous solid substance, so do individual humans join up to form the universal humanity in human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth. Without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.

Thus, Einstein’s God (God of Spinoza) and Tagore’ God (God of human universe in harmony) are remarkably similar.

(This article is an adaptation of the write-up by Maria Popova on ‘When Einstein met Tagore’, dated 27 April 2012 )

Dr A Rahman is an author and a blogger.