Monthly Archives: September 2010
My good friend Sravan once again left a long and passionate comment to my previous post questioning the authenticity of religion (though he may not agree on the passionate part!). He raises a lot of important issues but unfortunately for him, he does not contest my primary assertion that there is no independent validation of the scriptures. He makes a good genuine effort to circumvent the issue by working within the scriptures and the nature of it while continuing to give analogies. Some of the points he raised got me thinking more and realized that there are a couple of ideas that religion simply cannot circumvent. Those are the ideas of verifiability and repeatability.
One of the important points my friend raises is regarding “assumptions-based-theory”. He has got it spot on when he says that all of the current theories that are in place in science and engineering are all based on some or the other assumptions. And that we build our theory based on these assumptions as we are very keen on learning the bigger implications of these assumptions. I totally agree with him upto this point. But what he says further is totally flawed and acts as a starting point for the two ideas I mentioned above.
Religious scriptures are built on certain assumptions that are present in the scriptures themselves. A bigger ‘theory’, so to speak, is built based on these assumptions. This theory is extremely elaborate and highly meticulous in detail and covers practically all aspects of life and the universe. My previous post questioned the very authenticity and validity of of these assumptions. My friend contests that all modern theories are also based on a similar structure wherein the larger theory emanates from a set of assumptions. True. But where he has got it completely wrong is when he says “Why haven’t you questioned these assumptions?”.
This line of counter argument is totally wrong for many reasons. Firstly and most importantly, modern theories DO question these assumptions before building their theories on it. And there are very stringent criteria that have to be met before it can be branded as an assumption. The two necessary, and most of the times, sufficient criteria are those of Verifiability and Repeatability.
Each assumption must first be verified to be true for all conditions it is being considered. For example, the whole of Electronics is based on the assumption that Ohm’s Law is valid. If someone asks a question WHY Ohm’s Law is valid, we can very readily DEMONSTRATE that V is indeed equal to IR through simple experiments (which I am sure my friend remember from LP’s lab classes!). Similarly, the entire realm of geometry is based on a few axioms/postulates. If one wants to question the veracity of these assumptions, they can always verify it themselves. For example, when a line passes through two parallel lines, the corresponding angles are equal. That is an assumption. This assumption can be readily and easily proved by drawing two parallel lines and an intersecting line and MEASURING the corresponding angles. You will find them to be equal, no matter who you are or under what circumstances you do so.
Each assumption must also satisfy the criterion of Repeatability. This means that whatever assumptions a theory is based on can be verified repeatedly, at any time and anywhere. You can verify Ohm’s law long after Ohm died. You can verify the corresponding angles assumption anywhere in this world and even hundreds of years after Euclid’s death. And you can see that they are valid because you can actually MEASURE the parameters.
Thus, it can be established, without a doubt that all modern theories are based on assumptions that can be verified and verified repeatedly. And this is where religion and religious scriptures fail.
The scriptures, as my friend pointed out, contain the theories and the case studies which show how to apply those theories. And all these theories are based on certain assumptions. But the only difference between scriptures and modern theories is that the assumptions in the scriptures offer neither verifiability nor repeatability.
There is no known method or test to verify the claim that God does exist. And even if it does exist, it has surely failed in the repeatability criteria. I am sure there are a lot of tests that can establish the existence of God, but all of these tests are part of the scriptures themselves and are based on the assumption that God indeed exists. There are also many instances of repeatability , but all are inevitably part of the scriptures, which are built on the very assumptions that they claim to prove. So it is a scenario wherein the existence of something is proved by assuming the existence in the first place. Which really should not make sense to anyone.
Every claim that is made by the religious scriptures is thus based on assumptions that are neither verifiable nor repeatable independently. Of course, there is a very predictable line of counter argument that is often used.
It is said that, as you cannot measure the stiffness or strength of a material using a Voltmeter, similarly you cannot verify God’s existence using instruments or gadgets available in this world. It also says that the only way to realize the truth is by following the instructions of a well qualified Guru as he has the necessary expertise to guide one through the whole process. Fair enough.
Say a non-believer goes to the guru and does exactly what he tells him to do and he does it for a long time. What happens then? Do you suddenly SEE God? Perhaps the entire universe will make more sense if you begin to read and believe the scriptures for what they are. But what we are enquiring here is what will happen to the follower with respect to being able to PROVE or Verify that God does indeed exist? He will essentially have to take the Guru’s word on everything and trust him to have read all the scriptures and that he is well versed in them. Even if the Guru is indeed qualified, the question remains- exactly what is it that you will experience that will prove the existence and influence of God? What is that result that you will see from a scripture- prescribed test that will prove that God does exist?
Perhaps it is in being able to attain salvation from this materialistic world and return to the God’s abode that is the result of practicing the Guru’s instructions. Perhaps it is a better life that you will get in your next birth if you have not fully followed the instructions. Or in the other cases, maybe a life of tremendous pain and suffering in your next birth if you lead a sinful life now. These are some of the guaranteed ‘results’ or consequences one can expect as a result of leading our life now. But don’t you see it?
All the results/consequences can be realized in what the scriptures term as your “next life”. And that we are reaping the rewards and punishments of our “previous life”. The scriptures no doubt detail many instances of these results demonstrating the existence of God and more. But is there one single person who has actually “experienced it” (and lived to tell it???!!!!?) ? Is there a first hand account of rebirth and a correlation to the deeds he or she may have committed in his/her previous birth?
Or talking of the bigger picture, is there one single way to verify the assumptions of the scriptures wherein the results and the consequences of the test can be seen in THIS very lifetime?
I am also not going to buy the argument that once you start practicing what the scriptures say from a qualified Guru, you are going to experience a bliss and happiness that you have not experienced before. The fact that people do experience happiness and bliss after beginning to take instructions is completely true. But it should not be attributed to, or serve as a means of verification of, the existence of God. This feeling is no different than any of the experiences of the followers of hundreds of religious cults around the world. This is the same feeling that one can find people experiencing and talking about during evangelistic gatherings.
This happiness arises primarily out of reinforcing a pre-existing belief.
You already believe the scriptures based on some level of faith. Then you are repeatedly told that if you perform a certain activity, happiness is guaranteed to you because that is what the scriptures say and that the scriptures are the ultimate truth. And you hear this from someone whom you believe to have studied and mastered the scriptures and learnt it from his Master who is also properly qualified. You choose to look at all the impressive level of the authenticity of the whole process and begin to perform the activities. Lo and behold! You suddenly feel all happy and joyful about everything! And you attribute it to the existence and mercy of God.
If this is your experience, you just fell prey to a combination of The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, Confirmation Bias and Subjective Validation. I will not elaborate here as the 3 articles are really worth a read. Just suffice it to say that the happiness that one gets out of following these scriptures arise simply because you are already told to expect (true) happiness as a result of these activities because you are going to feel the presence of God etc. And you are told this repeatedly by someone you believe knows the answers, and also while being surrounded by people who hold similar beliefs. You meet more regularly among these very people and it further reinforces your belief that what you are doing is the right and the only way to go ahead.
(The same idea is used by athletes all around the world (believers and non-believers) to improve themselves. They repeatedly tell themselves that they are capable of achieving better, which eventually convinces them that they are indeed capable, thus helping them get a better mental state in which to compete. This is called positive feedback. It is just a means of believing in something by reinforcing repeatedly what you want to believe. )
But in reality, the only thing that is happening is you are getting more and more sucked into the illusion that you perceive as happiness. Of course the big irony here is that the exact reverse is what is taught in the scriptures. That the material world can only give rise to illusory happiness and that following spiritual activities under proper guidance is the only way you can achieve proper happiness.
If you want to believe in these consequences and results as a way to verify the existence and influence of God, then you are in no position to be reasoned with. And even if you can be reasoned, the entire reasoning process will lie in the domain of the scriptures, for believing the authenticity and validity of the scriptures requires blind faith. And this is where reason stops. Thus, it can be rightly said that unlike modern theories which are accepted because they can be proven, the scriptures are to be ultimately accepted not based on any verifiable independent proof, but solely on blind faith.
To wind up my post, I will continue on the counter argument of my friend to the Doctor-Civil Engineer analogy in the previous post.
But first let me clarify myself fully that I do not believe that the purpose of religion is to create a more civilized society and generate more discipline among people. This, as I have mentioned previously, is a by product of the whole process. (Well that is if you discount all the violence that is happening in the name of religion). As the scriptures say, the purpose of all these activities is to get liberated from this material world, end the cycle of birth and death and go back to God. I get that yes. But I just dont believe it thats all.
Returning to the analogy, my friend contends that if the book claimed that a bridge could be built of straw and that it could withstand an aircraft, the Civil Engineer would have developed apprehensions and doubts himself. And that he would have gone on to verify the authenticity of the book from someone who is well versed with that book. And that similarly, any claims from a religious scripture should be verified with a person well versed in the religious scriptures.
Again, there is a fundamental flaw in this argument.
You see, if a book says that such a bridge is possible and even a person who is well versed with that book says that it is possible, it is possible to actually TRY BUILDING that bridge to VERIFY if it is the truth or not. However, with religious scriptures, there is no verification. You can have a Guru who can tell you that there are a lot of things that are true and that it has to be taken on faith. But there is no way you can prove (or even disprove- which makes it more invalid) the claims of religious scriptures. If the argument here is that the verification has to be done as it is said in the scriptures, then you should read what I have written before this in the previous paragraphs.
Motivated strongly by my good friend Sravan’s comment in my previous post about Religious activities, I decided to write more on the subject. The best part about having a debate is that new ideas and flaws are revealed during the process. And I hit upon one such realization when I was responding to my friend’s comment. You can find the essence of it in that comment but here I shall elaborate it further.
All religions, and I mean every single established religion, have their own respective collection of books which are referred to as “scriptures” or “word of God” etc. I will be dealing with Hinduism and its scriptures in this blog post. But the argument can be easily extrapolated to accommodate other religions as well.
Scriptures include every known collection of religious texts which is accepted by the religion as sacred to them in one form or another. They are said to contain the ultimate truth and an explanation for every single religious/spiritual/ritualistic activity that people do in the present day. I strongly believe in the second part of the previous sentence.
Scriptures definitely offer a very specific explanation for every single activity that we do or are supposed to be doing. They maybe spiritual, religious or ritualistic in nature. But each of them have an explanation somewhere in the scriptures. And I am NOT contesting this fact. But what I aim to discuss in this blog post is the ‘validity’ and ‘authenticity’ of these scriptures upon which the entire religion is built.
The scriptures claim to offer an explanation to everything that we may wonder about. And many of these explanations are quite elaborate and meticulous. So much so, it can appear convincing just because it is so elaborate and meticulous. They can also be convincing if you are ready to accept the axioms upon which they are based. (Which have really been exactly where religion stopped making sense to me.)
Now say one goes to inquire about Life, Universe and Everything with a ‘Guru’ who has actually read all the scriptures, obtained his knowledge from his Guru who is part of an ‘authentic’ chain of Gurus dating all the way back to God himself. Now such an inquiry would be deemed valid by religious or spiritual people I am sure. And so when one asks questions to the Guru, the Guru in turn replies drawing his knowledge from all the scriptures he has studied and been taught about. He cites the scriptures every now and then, for every single inquiry, thus giving the impression that the scriptures are indeed complete and ultimate. So essentially, every single question has an answer in these scriptures and one is expected to accept that answer without any further question.This makes the scriptures as the starting point for all answers. Or in other words, the axioms to the scriptures and to the entire religion are found in the scriptures themselves.
My question here is this: Why should we assume that what is said in these scriptures is indeed the truth, let alone the ultimate truth?
The only possible answer to this question is that the scriptures themselves say so. I am sure you can find somewhere in the scriptures that the scriptures are the final word and everything that they say is the ultimate truth. (And perhaps somewhere it is also said that those who doubt it or do not believe in it will face a lot of bad consequences.)
Here is where religion loses it. So all of religion and all of the practices and beliefs are written down in the scriptures and the scriptures are said to provide the knowledge needed to ‘liberate’ one from this world. But the only source that corroborates the validity of these scriptures in the first place – are the scriptures themselves!
The scriptures apparently validate themselves by simply asserting it in their own writings! And all the Gurus and Saints draw from THESE scriptures to guide ‘humanity’ so that they be ‘liberated’ from this world!
So you see where the Recursive part comes into play here.
The scriptures are widely considered to be the ultimate source of truth and knowledge and etc. But the only thing that says that these are actually the real deal are the scriptures themselves. Since every single piece of knowledge that is available in religion is based on some or the other scriptures, the impending and inevitable conclusion is that all religious knowledge is drawn from a source which does not have an independent source of validation.
The only way this can be disproved is if hard evidence is presented which proves the existence of independent authorities who can validate the scriptures. And here is where religion has a problem.
It is believed that the only source from which religious or spiritual knowledge is to be gained is through an authentic chain of command. This would essentially refer to the chain of Gurus that I mentioned earlier. If the Gurus or anyone justifies the scriptures by quoting someone or something independent of the scriptures, then the whole justification becomes void because the scriptures themselves say that the only authentic knowledge is to be found INSIDE the scriptures and from the people who have read it and quote it. And so what this implies is that any proof of independent validation of the scriptures cannot be provided by religion by itself. It is some kind of a Catch 22 situation, but hey, dont look at me like I wrote the scriptures or anything!
Also one other point that my friend makes in his (long) comment is that I should not be commenting on issues of religion as I do not have the necessary expertise in the field. He gives the analogy of how a doctor should not tell a fashion designer what is right and wrong in his field because he does not have the necessary knowledge or expertise to do so.
Well, this argument is flawed at various levels. Let me continue with the same analogy but let me replace the fashion designer with a Civil Engineer (which I am one btw :P). It is true the doctor should not guide the Civil Engineer and tell him what is right or wrong in his field. But when the Civil Engineer tells the doctor that he can build a bridge across a large river using only straws and says that the bridge can withstand an aircraft, the doctor is compelled to feel apprehensive about the knowledge and awareness of the Civil Engineer. The doctor asks the Civil Engineer for proof and the Civil Engineer says that what he has said is true because some book which he refers and draws all his knowledge from says so and that the doctor should accept it as it is. The doctor (and you) knows that what the Civil Engineer is claiming is not and cannot be true.
So when you have people with expertise in one subject claim a lot of things that range from maybe-possible to ridiculously impossible, you really dont need someone of expertise in the same field to question their assumptions and axioms.
Which is exactly what I have been doing. And I am sure any reasonable open minded person can understand this.
Call me ignorant or whatever you may like. But the way I see it, questioning the very axioms which religion is based on is the real inquiry- it does not attribute to being ignorant.
Recently I came across this extremely informative, thought provoking and useful blog, written by a journalist who is interested in psychology as well. The blog is called You Are Not So Smart. I strongly recommend subscribing to this blog as well as going through all the previous posts. Anyway, a few months back, I came across an article about Coffee in the same blog. The post was as mind altering and paradigm shift initiating as many of the previous articles I had read in there. I am not going to be summarizing that post in here. It is worth a read in its entirety. But as the title suggests, what I WILL be doing is to explain why practicing any religious activity is like drinking coffee.
And before I start out, let me assure you that this post is worth a read only if you are open to possibilities different from what you may be accustomed to. So while non-believers will (and perhaps should) have absolutely no issue in seeing my point of view, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the believers who read this post strongly disagree with me. I wont exactly call myself an atheist but I am kind of hovering around the edge of late. And some of my realizations are now getting manifested in this post.
Anyway, before I digress to the point of you closing this window/tab, let me get to the point.
All of us at some point of time, or perhaps even now, would have gone to temples, churches or other places of worship. You would have also prayed at home soon after taking bath, perhaps prostrating yourself in front of some God photographs, praying that the day go well for you. You may have the habit of praying to God when you are about to embark on something important for the day. You may even go to Sunday masses or some other religious/spiritual gathering on a regular basis. Perhaps you may even make that trip to Tirupathi/Shabarimala/Haridwara/Hrishikesh etc once in a while, donating money to the God and praying for good health and peace of you and your family members or maybe as a gesture of gratitude for some good luck that may have come your way. Maybe you make the effort to wake up early in the morning just so you perform a particular religious activity at the auspicious time. You or your family members may hold one or more religious ceremonies at your home once in a while, inviting family and friends for the occasion. You would probably have the habit of fasting on certain days or if you are a non- vegetarian, you make sure not to eat meat on certain days of the week or month.
The list is endless and I am sure you can add your own specific activities to that list. We may not have (or in my case, will probably never have) a fully convincing reason for doing all the things that I have listed above but we still do it because we believe that there must be SOME reason for it. (Rest assured, my argument is not going to question the validity of the ‘reason’. ) We do not thoroughly inquire about this reason because our belief accommodates the possibility that the actual reason is ‘out there’ in some scriptures or in some other religious book. Fair enough. And so whatever may be the ‘reason’, we continue to perform some or the other religious activities on a regular or irregular basis.
Continuing in the same train of thought, the logically correct thing to discuss next would be how performing these religious activities influence us.
Our parents have constantly reminded us that performing these religious activities help us in many direct ways such as improving our concentration, discipline, control of mind and in reducing distractions. And it would probably have come as no surprise when we found friends or other fellow students who were religious and were able to focus on the task at hand and not yield to short term temptations. ( Whether or not they ‘scored’ well was a different issue altogether.) Perhaps our parents would have even taken their examples to teach us the usefulness and importance of performing religious/spiritual activities. Again, fair enough.
But there is a fundamental flaw in the whole matter. You see, correlating the discipline and the ability to focus to the regularity and/or sincerity of the performance of religious activities is valid. And I also believe that this does exist very predominantly. But claiming that the performance of RELIGIOUS activities is the actual CAUSE for that discipline and focus is completely and utterly false.
Let me elaborate.
You see, discipline and focus stems not from the regular performance of ‘religious’ activities. They stem from the regular performance of ANY constructive activity. And since we have been told from our childhood that ‘religious’ activities are, by default, the most constructive activity, they also tend to yield the same results.
We wake up in the morning, take bath, go to the Sacred Pooja room and spend some time praying to God and asking for his blessings in all our deeds and actions. We do this mainly because we have been told from our childhood that we are SUPPOSED to be doing it for whatever ‘reason’ that we spoke about earlier. We go about doing all the other activities in the list above at some regularity and we do it because there is SOME reason for it and we are SUPPOSED to be doing it. Whether you actually find out what this reason is is totally irrelevant. You will continue to do the same activities either way.
So what happens when you do these activities on a regular basis? You are essentially doing something, which in your mind, you are SUPPOSED to be doing and which you perceive to be constructive. And what happens when ANYONE does ANYTHING constructive that they are ‘supposed’ to be doing? Its simple. They gain some happiness. They increase their self esteem. They become more confident about themselves. And as a consequence, we can see them get more disciplined and focused in their work and studies.
Think of it. Instead of being told to perform the early morning ceremonies without fail, what if our parents had pushed us to take an early morning jog or walk everyday? If that had become part of our daily activities, then we would have reaped the same rewards as performing religious activities on a regular basis. Hell! We would have in fact reaped a lot more rewards in the long term. Our fitness levels would have increased, our body gets healthier, a lot lesser number of people would have diabetes and most significantly, it would have vastly reduced the number of pot bellied middle aged uncles in our families!
There are so many more activities that one can think of, which if performed regularly, would not only improve our discipline, focus, self esteem and confidence, but also provide benefits in a lot more ways as well. We could explore our hobbies, passions and interests which definitely yield a lot more tangible results than religious activities.
And this is where the idea of drinking coffee comes in.
You see, coffee does not really stimulate you. If you have read the article, you would have understood what I am trying to say. It only temporarily cures your withdrawal symptoms that arise from the effects of the previous cup of coffee wearing off. Caffeine replaces adenosine, the chemical required to induce sleep in the body, in the receptor sites in the brain and makes you feel stimulated. The way the brain responds is by creating a lot more sites having a lot more adenosine which makes you feel a lot more sleepy, thereby requiring you to consume a lot more Coffee to just feel Normal. And everytime you drink coffee, this effects adds up and you end up getting addicted to it.
So how is this analogous to our present discussion? Think of it. If you at any point of time, stop performing religious activities, you will feel crappy about it. You will feel crappy about it because you believe you are NOT doing something that you are supposed to be doing. And if you become extremely irregular in doing those activities, you begin to lose your confidence in yourself, your self esteem and ultimately your discipline and focus takes a beating, which may end up reflecting at your work or in your studies.
And so to ‘fix’ this, you end up performing more religious activities. More activities, because you believe you have neglected your duties and that you need to make up for it. And it makes you feel happy for a while, thus getting you back to ‘normal’. After this, you will feel even more crappy if you end up becoming irregular at performing those religious activities. This time it will be worse because you will take your previous neglecting into account here as well, thus making a bigger neglect of duty. And after this reaches a certain point, you go perform some other (maybe bigger) religious activity wherein you pray to God to condone your neglect of duty- here duty being performing some or the other religious activity that you were expected to do on a regular basis.
And thus, this vicious cycle goes on and on and on. You will continue to do the activities for the same reason (or the lack thereof) you have been doing from the beginning: just because you are SUPPOSED to.
If any believer or a religious reader points out that this kind of a phenomenon is possible with ANY other kind of activity as well, then he is essentially retreating to the “Not only mine, but even your examples are wrong!” line of argument. There is just one problem with this argument. If you argue this way, you yourself are essentially negating the very things about religion that I am contesting! In other words, if you argue this way, then you are essentially accepting that all religious activities are for the sole purpose of generating discipline and focus among people through the performance of religious activities. This way, there is no higher REASON that needs to be found in any scripture or religious book.
But come to think of it, there is a much larger implication in all of this. In the entire post, I have never argued the fact that the generation of discipline and focus among religious people can be correlated to their regular and sincere performance of religious activity. But lets take it a bit further.
It is extremely plausible that religion and religious activities started out with this very intention- the intention to help people generate more discipline, focus and self esteem, thus leading to a more civilized society. Random people over the centuries preaching the masses that they are ‘supposed’ to be doing these activities, failing which, they will accrue sins for neglecting to do the same. Every single religion on this planet expects its followers to perform some or the other religious activity which gives rise to the whole phenomenon that I have described here. But over time, this original idea takes a beating and religion becomes what it is today. This, of course, directly implies that religion is man made!
As much as I have come to accept this in recent times, the high levels of logical certainty that exists in that statement is really daunting and scary. Especially if you look around at the scale of violence that is occurring in the name of religion. But that is for another day.
I am open to reason. I do not consider faith as a good enough substitute for reason. Feel free to leave any comments arguing my line of thinking. But please make some effort at least to include some reason in them.