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Re: Dealing with Darwin?

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_best.com)
Date: Tue May 11 1999 - 17:44:54 PDT

A few points on the place of scientific reason in 
Visishtadvaita, with minor reference to biological
evolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection.
I don't wish to argue about Darwin per se here;
I would urge those interested in this topic to read 
all the literature and the counterarguments on both 
sides before forming an opinion.

The original question centered on whether Darwin's
theory, or the scientific explanation of the origin
of the universe, is reconcilable with Visishtadvaita
Vedanta.  I personally accept both of these 
scientific conclusions, and I would like to argue
that such an acceptance in no way reduces my belief 
in God or the fundamental theory of Reality according 
to Vedanta.

In this vein, I would like to point out that just 
because a divine power is not mentioned by a scientist 
does not mean that that Divinity is irrelevant. (It
also does not mean that the scientist is an atheist.
Darwin, for example, was a devout Christian.)

As an illustrative example, take an automobile. We know
that all things being equal, if we turn the key in 
the ignition, the car will start, and if we hit the
gas pedal, the car goes forward.  This can be repeated
with any functional car.

Notice that I did not mention God anywhere in the previous
paragraph. Does my omission of God's name mean that He is 
inoperative here? Does the fact that we do not invoke God or 
even mention God when discuss a car's mechanics mean that God 
plays no part in the process?

No. God's sankalpa or will is necessary for anything to
function in the universe.  Mere statement about something
occurring without mentioning God's name in *no way* implies
that God is inoperative; God's operation is axiomatic.

In the same way, I would argue that evolution and
the theory of natural selection can be fully accepted
by Vedantins, because these things does not say anything 
for *or* against God.  These theories are merely trying to 
explain the universe through perceptible means.  To a 
believer, however, God can and must operate through nature, 
and this operation of God is imperceptible, just as we cannot 
see God's sankalpa when we start our cars.

The limits of science are the points at which observation
ends.  Scientists fully admit that they can never pinpoint
the First Cause of the universe; nor can they truly explain
how life as we know it began. They can only explain 
the physical, mathematical, or biological bases for any
of these. (Darwin, for example, does not make a teleological
argument, such as Sri Bharat has assumed. Such an argument
itself borders on theology.)

It is up to the metaphysicians and theologians to argue
about the unobservable.  This is precisely why Ramanuja,
along with all other Vedantins, argues that observation 
(pratyaksha) and inference (anumAna) simply cannot prove
that God exists. They likewise cannot prove that God doesn't
exist.  The existence and nature of Divinity *must* be
accepted on faith based on the Vedas (see Sribhashya 1.1.3).
Ramanuja goes to great lengths to show how inferential
arguments that try to prove the nature of God are in the
end pointless.

This is an important conclusion to note, so I'll restate
it. According to Vedanta, we CANNOT prove that God exists.
We similarly cannot prove that God DOESN'T exist. We accept
the Vedas as being the eternal, revealed, unauthored truth. 
The Vedas tell us that God exists. We therefore accept God's 
existence.

My point in writing this is that we have to give full 
weight to physical observation in understanding the world
around us.  Physical observation is primary when concerning
the nature of the world, and scripture has to be interpreted
in consonance with this.

Sri Rajaram Venkataramani requested citations from Sri Ramanuja,
particularly on the topic of how perception is of greater
force that scripture.

Let me cite the opinions of our acharyas in a few
instances.

(1) The theme of the scriptures is the 'adhyAtma',
    that which is not comprehensible through physical
    investigative means.

    In the Vedarthasangraha, Ramanuja writes:

    SAstram tu pratyakshAdy aparicchedya-sarvAntarAtmatvAdi-
    ... tad-anishTa-karaNa-mUla-nigraha-viSesha-vishayam iti 
    SAstra-pratyakshayoH na virodhaH |
 
    The theme of scriptures comprehends principles not
    determinable by perception. They are the nature of
    Brahman, ... the pervasive immanence in all as
    their ultimate self and absolute reality, the 
    various modes of worship ... [etc.] Therefore
    perception and scripture are free from inconsistency.

                       -- para 66.


(2) Since we use our senses for the very task of hearing
    and reading the scriptures, we have to admit that our
    senses are valid means of gathering information. This
    is elaborated by both Ramanuja and Desika.

(3) Sri Desika devotes a whole chapter (vAda 29) in the 
    Satadushani to establish that scripture must be interpreted 
    in line with our experience and observations.  This
    is an amplification of an argument found in Ramanuja's
    mahAsiddhAnta in Sribhashya 1.1.1. This point is also
    mentioned in Desika's Tattva-Mukta-Kalaapa, 4.133.


Once again, I am not trying to argue Darwin's theory per se.
If one is to accept scientific opinion on this matter, however,
it in no way reduces his or her claim to Vedanta, and can easily
be reconciled within the Vedantic scheme of thought. 

A final note: we should be very careful not to confuse the
writings of other people, even other Vaishnava teachers, with 
the  philosophy of our Visishtadvaita Sri Vaishnava acharyas.  
These other teachers, no matter how inspiringly they write,
are operating under different principles and very often teach 
things that are fundamentally contradictory to our Vedantic 
philosophy.

aDiyEn rAmAnuja dAsan,
Mani