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Re: Dealing with Darwin?

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_best.com)
Date: Thu May 06 1999 - 12:16:19 PDT

Mukunda,

In my opinion, there is absolutely no problem in accepting
scientific opinion regarding the origin of species and the
universe, and at the same time being a devout Vedantin and
follower of Sri Ramanuja.

Let me explain why.

The philosophers of Vedanta typically posit three ways
of "knowing" things: (a) pratyaksha -- perception or 
direct observation, (b) anumAna -- inference or logical deduction
such as "where there's smoke, there's fire", and 
(c) Sabda -- the Vedas.

Each one of these ways of "knowing" are independently
valid (svatah prAmANya).  One does not need corroboration 
from another source of information in its sphere of
influence.

Each way of knowing (pramANa) operates in its own
sphere of influence.  The Vedas and ancillary scriptures
are part of the 'adhyAtma SAstra', meant for understanding
the supra-sensory, such as the nature of the self, the
nature of God, the nature of consciousness, and the
relation between all of these.  Obviously, science has
little bearing in this area.

Similarly, pratyaksha and anumAna (i.e., science) is meant
to understand the world that we see and live in.  Whatever
is posited by the Vedas and other scriptures has to agree
with scientific observation. Sri Ramanuja makes the brilliant
point that when one's understanding of the Veda disagrees
with knoweldge obtained through scientific investigation, the 
scientific observation is preferred; the Veda
must be reinterpreted to fit with the observation. 
Two ways of knowing simply cannot be in conflict. 
This principle, in my opinion, reflects a unique genius,
and blends the scientific and religious outlooks.

For example, if the Veda says "the moon is made of
green cheese", but our observations indicate that the
moon is indeed not made of such a substance, the Veda
must be reinterpreted to fit our observation.  Perhaps
the Veda means something symbolically or metaphorically --
whatever the case, our observation simply cannot be wrong.

Similarly, science simply cannot tell us about God. It
cannot say anything about whether God exists or doesn't
exist, or whether God plays a helping hand in creation,
whether we have free will, whether there is more to life
than bodily experience, or whether God is the ultimate
reality.  Science deals only with what we can see, and
what we can deduce from this observation.

Let's analyze the matter further to answer the present
question.

Darwin's theory of natural selection is accepted by 
nearly all scientists in some form or another. There are
some so-called scientists who espouse "scientific"
creationism, but most of this theory consists of misquotation
of learned articles and a misunderstanding of the scientific
record.  Unfortunately, some of this dubious science
is even propagated by some Vaishnavas today, when before
it was purely the mainstay of extremist Christians.

Should acceptance of evolution, a scientific fact, in any 
way affect one's beliefs as a Vedantin? Absolutely not.  
There is nothing in our primary shastras that cannot be understood 
in the light of commonly accepted science; after all, these texts   
are meant to inform us about what we *cannot see* or *reason*
about.  (By primary texts, I mean the Upanishads, Gita,
and Brahma Sutras. There are countless secondary texts that
posit illogical and irreconcilable theories of the universe.
But these secondary texts are just that -- secondary.)

Finally, realize that our tradition in particular is a 
tradition of experience -- anubhavam.  Its foundation does
not lie in a dogmatic assertion of the creation of the earth
at a point of time, or some personality's exuberant vision.
It relies on certain *principle* of life and religious
experience, which are elucidated by the Upanishads, Gita
and Sutras, and reaffirmed and experienced by our Alvars.
These principles neither stand nor fall on the acceptance
scientific evidence about the world around us.

This is one of those issues where the tradition of Vedanta
really stands head and shoulders above the others. 

rAmanuja dAsan
Mani