Persuasive Interpretations: A Review of Truth and Tension In Science and Religion by V.V. Raman

Persuasive Interpretations: A Review of Truth and Tension In Science and Religion by V.V. Raman

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Varadaraja V. Raman, Truth and Tension in Science and Religion. New Hampshire: Beech River Books, 2009, xi, 399 pp., $24.00.

V.V. Raman, a physicist with a background in quantum mechanics and a long list of publications in the history, philosophy and culture of science, introduces his most recent volume, Truth and Tension in Science and Religion, by laying his cards on the table: “Truth or falsehood pertaining to ultimate questions are not always easy to establish to the satisfaction of one and all, but one can hope to find some consensus on what is helpful and harmful” (p.6, emphasis added). Raman then might be considered an intellectual utilitarian who is agnostic both with respect to religion and science. He flies under the flag of “By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them.”

Chapter 2 of Truth and Tension begins by introducing science: “More important than discovering unseen aspects of the world, knowledge acquired through science has demolished plague and pestilence, and mindless fears that tormented our ancestors” (p.9). But Raman is not a simple minded true believer in the unalloyed wonders of science: “…science has also brought us to the brink,” he adjures.  He goes on in Chapter 2 to define the operational, institutional and characteristic differences between science and religion in an historical context. Regardless of the country in which it is practiced, science is international. There is one science, while there are many religions. While technology has been part of the human scene since the ax and the arrowhead, from the seventeenth century onward, science and technology have grown evermore productively interactive.

Religious thinking, according to Raman, is often characterized by “monodoxy,” as a single system of ideas representing “the only acceptable orthodoxy… [and] …those holding differing views … are frowned upon or severely punished” (p.16). Traditional religious monodoxies have experienced a significant weakening of their explanatory power among those persons and societies whose thinking has been influenced by the Western scientific mode of inquiry and explanation. Raman is no fan of intolerant monodoxy and certainly not of its benighted relatives—superstition, astrology, and magic mongering. Still, his deep respect for the questions and experiences that religion addresses is evident and expressed throughout the work.

Raman draws our attention in this chapter to the distinction between explanations of the natural world based on rational, data based scientific knowledge and popular understandings that generally are not.  Even among the recipients of modern Western education, scientific knowledge often remains spotty at best—unexamined religious, and pre- and pseudo-scientific notions can prevail. In a certain sense, one might say, modern scientific knowledge is Gnostic, the special knowledge of an initiated elite.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, in this chapter, and indeed throughout the entirety of Truth and Tension, Raman remains appreciative, respectful and supportive of mankind’s deeply held, persistent and universal search for transcendent meaning. He has walked the talk by spending a full year personally visiting cathedrals, monasteries and ashrams, and participating in a wide variety of religious rituals: “… religions enable us to perceive or conceive of dimensions of the human experience that transcend logic and rationality….the yearning for spiritual experience is not an abnormal or trivial quirk of the mentally challenged, as some would contend, but a deeply felt component of the healthy human heart” (p.28). It is clear that the fundamental purpose of the wide- ranging, indeed encyclopedic, philosophical, historical and descriptive discussion presented in Truth and Tension is intended to foster an informed and respectful dialogue between religion and science, science and religion.

Chapters 3, “Epistemological Aspects,” and 4, “Explanatory Dimensions,” are the intellectual heart of the book. These chapters are devoted to an extended discussion of science and religion as ways of knowing and determining the truthfulness of the propositions that each presents. Chapter 3 begins with a useful listing of the truth criteria employed respectively by science and religion. Scientific thinking is characterized by: logical consistency, empirical observation, replication, expert consensus, independent confirmation and propositions subject to revision (pp.60-62). In contrast, religious thinking has different characteristics: reliance on authoritative statements, trans-rational conviction, profound personal experiences, doctrines said to have come from an historically important founder and that have been transmitted by successors, willingness to accept apparent contradictions and personally transformative effects ( pp.62-64). “From this perspective,” Raman states, “we may look upon [science and religion as] games that a community of participants agrees to play based on a certain set of rules. One reason for the conflict between science and religion is that the two do not accept the same criteria for ascribing validity to propositions, i.e., [they] do not play by the same rules” (p.65).

Chapter 3 continues with an extended discussion of determinism, that is, the conviction of classic modern science that there are reliably repetitive material causes in nature that can be known. This view of classical post-Enlightenment science, however, is now subject to an expanding domain of unpredictability as the result of contemporary physics, which offers plausible models of multiple universes, both simultaneous and sequential, and particles whose location is ambiguous.1 Raman goes on to describe determinism further as the belief that a knowable material event or series of knowable material events can be used to reliably forecast a subsequent material event or set of material events. This belief, which corresponds to experience and thus far has proven in practice to yield results, is among the most important primary and yet ultimately philosophically indefensible assumptions on which the modern scientific enterprise rests. Of course, religions too make forecasts, in their case based on scared texts and revelations—such as predicting the end of the world as we know it, for which there is no rational justification. In practice the reliability of religious forecasting is subject to greater variation. Nonetheless, Raman makes no bones about his position with respect to the initial assumptions of science—such as, that physical phenomenon can be known and explained and that the universe is ordered and repetitive—which, like religious doctrines, cannot “be proven on logical grounds to be unassailable.”

Another distinction Raman makes that is useful in describing scientific and religious knowledge and knowing are expotent and endopotent. Scientific knowledge is expotent, that is, it yields universal propositions that can be empirically verified and that often have useful material applications. Religious knowledge is endopotent, that is, it consists of propositions that address transcendent and non-material issues that can lead to psychological and emotional satisfaction. And, Raman adds: “The idea that one is loved by one’s family or friends may be a far more significant truth to a person than the fact that the universe is more than ten billion years old” (p.95).

Chapter 4, “Explanatory dimensions,” continues in the same epistemological compare-and-contrast vein. Science is driven by testable theories, which must be shown to explain consistently and reliably the phenomenon they address. In science, “The validity of a hypothesis depends on the verifiability of its consequences as brought out by the theory on which it is based” (p.111). Religion also offers theories, typically at the highest level, such as the reason for creation, but they are not subject to experimental verification in the scientific sense.

In these two chapters and throughout Truth and Tension, Raman’s claims for scientific laws remain intellectually modest and subject to revision. “Are we justified, on the basis of very limited spatio-temporal data, in asserting that these laws have operated all through time and are valid in every nook and corner of the universe?” (p.121). But of course, the entire scientific enterprise must operate on the assumption, dare we say belief, that these initial presuppositions are true. Science, like mathematics, in the last analysis has no justification other than that it works for a given set of observed phenomenon to which we have chosen to apply it.

In Chapter 5, Raman turns to God: “We may look upon theology then, as a sophisticated, rational enterprise that analyzes issues related to those aspects of human existence that touch us profoundly as beings situated in a cultural/religious framework with a history and spiritual sources” (p.135). Theology aims to provide persuasive and rational argumentation for the fundamental doctrines of faith for which the rational and systematic arguments for the existence of God are a classic example, and atheism is the counter-enterprise. Atheism, an anti-theology, has recently enjoyed a certain fashionable prominence in the works of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Raman has greater sympathy for the aspirations represented by religion—despite religion’s spasmodic episodes of cruelty and intolerance—than he does for atheistic materialism. Though, as always, he is respectful of virtually all human attempts to explain our experience of the universe. In keeping with his fundamental humanistic and human, rather than strictly intellectual approach, that is, his conviction that belief systems are good insofar as they make life better, Raman faults atheism on the grounds that “…unwittingly or otherwise, it deprives people of a mystical sense of hope in despondency, consolation in bereavement, and joy in celebrations” (p.162).

Throughout the book, Raman exhibits, though he never quite says it, an attitude that might be characterized in part as a kind of spiritual utilitarianism, not dissimilar to that of the late John Updike, who wrote: “Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ambiguity, the ingenuity, the humanity (in the Harvard sense) of saying the universe just happened to happen and that when we are dead we are dead?”

Raman’s position is that religion operates on a different level, and is experienced and perceived by humans on different pathways than is science. Accordingly, he has little sympathy for attempts to prove the truth of religion using scientific procedures. Given the fundamental differences, he asserts, such attempts are bound to fail. In fact, a great many scientists are believers, but their belief is not the result of science. It rests on other ways of perceiving and explaining.

Chapter 5 also presents analytic descriptions of theistic (e.g. Christianity) and non-theistic (e.g. Buddhism) religions and the problem of evil. The latter is something that Raman argues is a consequence of anthropomorphizing God. Because as human beings we are given to ethical perceptions of ourselves and others, when God is anthropomorphized in theistic religions, the problem of evil cannot help but follow.

Chapter 6, “Spiritual Aspects,” tackles issues that follow directly from the claims of religion as a way of knowing. Among them are the existence of trans-material reality, and spiritual and mystical experiences. Are they real or simply the results of brain chemistry? Among the most interesting questions of this kind is the question of consciousness: What is it and where does it come from? Is the brain the same as the mind? Raman traces the history of this question from the Hindu sages through to Teilhard de Chardin and Ray Kurzweil, who foresees computer “consciousness” emerging and surpassing human consciousness in the near future. The question is: Does the music of the soul/mind/consciousness exist other than on the radio on which we hear it played?2

Chapter 6 concludes that religion and science differ in profound ways in how they conceive and address mystery. The world religions all hold that the universe contains irreducibly mysterious dimensions that will forever elude our rational understanding and toward which humans in touch with their humanity must stand in awe. Science, in contrast, regards mysteries as currently unsolved scientific puzzles that with sufficient effort can and will be solved. However, as Raman frequently makes clear, this is not to say that scientists and scientific thinking are without an aesthetic appreciation for the apparent beauty, order and regularity of the universe. And for a goodly number of scientists this is not without theological implications.

Chapter 7 is devoted to what is for Raman one of the most important measures, a kind of touchstone for judging the worth of scientific and religious doctrines, theories and thinking: their impact on what we do and how we live our lives, that is, their “Ethical Aspects.”

All religions carry along with their theology and cosmology doctrines regarding a set of behavioral injunctions such as the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Sharia, the observance of which or lack thereof are said to have consequences for life after death. But clearly, secular thinkers like Confucius and Hobbes have developed coherent ethical systems independent of religion. Indeed, like so much that is explained in traditional cultures by religion, “… like the other long-held prerogatives of religions, ethics began to be usurped by the onward rush of science” in anthropological, psychological, sociological and, most recently, neurobiological explanations. However, there is no more agreement among the secular-scientific theorists on the origins of human ethical behavior than there is agreement among religious believers as to what constitutes the one true religion.

Raman cycles through matters of ethics and morality, compassion and altruism, love and stewardship of the earth, and acknowledges that evolutionary biology and neuroscience can account for a good deal of what is regarded as ethical behavior—but certainly not all. There is, he posits, in the end a persistently mysterious and transcendent dimension to human behavior that extends beyond the explanatory powers of science.

Chapter 8, “Dissimilar Visions and Common Themes,” is delightful miscellany, a kind of museum of religious and scientific artifacts offered for consideration quite independent of their truthfulness. “If we consider religion and science not from a philosophical or epistemological point of view but instead as different modes of expression of the human spirit, they become quite interesting” (p.235). Among those modes of expression Raman explores from this point of view are: the sacred, the role of numbers in religious and scientific belief systems ( “…the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural science…” for which there is no satisfactory explanation) sex, food, magic, (“…both magic and science accept the existence of fundamental entities in the universe that are ultimately responsible for our world of experience”) oetry, art, politics, technology (which of course existed for most of human history quite independently of science) music, history and aesthetics.

Chapter 9 of Truth and Tension, entitled “Origins and Ends,” deals with beginnings and ends, beginning with various teleological (and anti-teleological) formulations of origins, including religious and scientific cosmography, the anthropic principle (that is, isn’t it interesting that the fundamental constants are perfectly calibrated to produce carbon based life forms, of which we are one?), God as the creator, biogenesis, evolution and so forth. To my mind, regardless of the particular explanatory approach, the root question is simply: “Is the universe (or are the universes) intentional or accidental?” Raman uses the terms “goal” and “purpose.” Metaphysically speaking, neither position is subject to verification, though one can argue that starting with the assumption—it can never be more than an assumption—that the universe is intentional and ultimately meaningful allows for more interesting and creative explanations, among these are religions. Of course the trouble starts when believers are convinced that they have a lock on the truth instead of a tentative formulation. This creates a sense of entitlement to bring others to their truth by any means possible, including the destruction of non-believers.

The penultimate chapter ends with ends: the end of the world, at least for us, via a crashing asteroid; the end of civilization with planetary ecological collapse brought on by global overpopulation and unrestrained consumption; and of course death, a sure thing, for which Raman offers a prayer for the believer and atheist alike: “…what matters now is not if we will live disembodied forever, or if we will become unrecognizable bits scattered on the earth’s mantel, but how we spread joy, alleviate suffering, serve others, and strive to make this a better world while we are alive” (p.326).

Truth and Tension concludes in Chapter 10, “Conflicting Thought,” with a stirring peroration in which Raman presents the deeply held core values that pervade his description and analysis of that lively, sometimes contentious intersection where science and religion cross, giving each their due. Religion, whose pedigree precedes science’s by several millenniums “provides humanity with a rich backdrop which transforms mechanical existence into meaningful life” (p.332)[…]And despite the persistence of dogmatism …there is still hope that the hate and intolerance lurking in traditional religions maybe subdued, tamed and transformed” (p.336).

While he is unsympathetic to the monomaniacal scientific materialists in that their “…absolute certainty is no less religious than the one which affirms that sooner or later we will all be saved,” Raman express an abundant and authentic respect for science as a powerful explanatory mode and for its material achievements: “…it has contributed immeasurably to the quality of life of countless people all over the world, increased physical health, extended longevity, produced more food, made communication and transportation unimaginably easy, and accomplished a thousand other things that were only in the fantasy world of our distant ancestors”(p.335).

Raman ends as he begins. He is clearly an agnostic and a utilitarian in these matters, reluctant to endorse the transcendent truth or certainty of either religion or science. He frequently discusses religion in terms of it its social, psychological and aesthetic utility without endorsing it wholesale. So too in the last analysis, he emphasizes science’s observational and logical coherence and material utility rather than its truthfulness. “When it comes to explaining any aspect of the perceived reality in the phenomenal world, one will have to embrace the scientific mode, not because this is truth, but because, based on the weight of all available evidence at a given time, it is the most persuasive interpretation.”

The spirit and perspective that pervade Truth and Tension can aptly be described in just those words that Raman has used in his recent review of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Press, 2009). Raman displays an unfailing and commodious respect for that persistent and variegated human search for meaning that is among the most enviable aspects of the Hindu tradition in which he was raised: “…the Hindu capacity to entertain contradictory views…enables one to see both sides of an argument. Perhaps this springs from the recognition that this finite world of ours is replete with dualities which are sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary.”3


1For a well written, accessible and comprehensive account of the decline of scientific certainties, see Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds. New York, N Y: Doubleday, 2005.

2Like much of mainstream scientific thinking, Raman does not chose to explore the possibility of interaction and causation between consciousness and what are considered non-material forces (e.g., prayer) and material events. For an interesting and informed example of discussions and publications along these lines, see Charles Tart’s work at