Three popular science books had made a deep impact on the young minds of some of us still in college, about the ultimate human destiny and the insignificance of life on Earth in this fathomless infinite Universe.
By PARIMAL BRAHMA
Three popular science books had made a deep impact on the young minds of some of us still in college, about the ultimate human destiny and the insignificance of life on Earth in this fathomless infinite Universe. They were: George Gamow’s One, Two, Three… Infinity, James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe, and Fred Hoyle’s The Nature of the Universe. While Gamow’s book presented flickers of optimism, Jeans and Hoyle painted a picture of gloom, doom and helplessness. I had to carry this depressive outlook throughout my life because no evidence to the contrary was forthcoming.
Commenting on the fate of humans, the great English astronomer, Fred Hoyle said that “religions are nothing but lame consolations for the stark reality confronting humanity”. This has been reiterated by the famous Indian astrophysicist, Jayant Narlikar in his book Introduction to Cosmology where similar views have been expressed.What is this “stark reality?” The fear and depression created by Hoyle’s statement propelled me to embark on a journey to know reality. A depressed mind will naturally fall back upon religion for solace.
So did I. Beginning with the religious texts ~ the Bible, the Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads,etc. ~ I started going through the teachings of the Prophets, Buddhist literature, Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine, The Gospels of Ramakrishna, lives of the Himalayan Masters and Swami Vivekananda’s speeches and writings. I also started meeting Sadhus and saints in their Ashrams and religious organisations. Swami Vivekananda’s powerful writings impressed and influenced me the most.
He was a rationalist and a nation-builder rather than a mere monk or a religious leader. He was against blind faith. Swamiji said, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book? Do not believe in a thing because another man had said it was true… Find out the truth yourself. Reason it out. That is realisation.” Unorthodox as he was, unlike a religious saint, he declared, “You can reach God by playing football rather than reading the Gita.” He wanted well-built strong youth to rebuild India.
Organised religions have created a paradigm of belief systems which are required to be followed by followers as unquestionable faiths and ultimate truths. The monolithic Abrahamic religions are common in many ways ~ single God, single religious text, heaven and hell, the burial of the dead, and the Day of Judgment. In contrast, the Indian religions believe in multiple gods, the continuity of life, indestructibility of the soul, reincarnation, a cycle of births and deaths till one achieves Moksha (salvation), cremation of the dead by fire and the theory of Karma.
India presents a kaleidoscopic picture of several organised and unorganised religions, many philosophical schools of thought, countless gods and goddesses, innumerable sects and creeds, many religious orders, thousands of meditating sadhus and saints sacrificing worldly life seeking salvation in the hills, and hundreds of interpretations about their religions and gods. Worshipping of animals, trees and stones, not found elsewhere, is also a part of religion. The beauty of the Indian religions, especially within the Hindu fold, has been the freedom to debate and criticise their own religion and their gods and goddesses making them the most “Argumentative Indians.”
There is a school of thought, the Charvakas who do not believe in the existence of God but still belong to the Vedic religion. Interestingly, all ancient civilisations worshipped multiple gods and goddesses ~ the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Mayans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and the Indians. With the destruction of these civilisations and the incursion of new organised religions, except the Chinese and the Indian, which are the only two surviving and continuing civilizations, all their gods and goddesses faced extinction.
China, which worshipped multiple gods and goddesses, abandoned all of them when the Communists came to power and changed the country’s culture to make Communism the only religion. It is only in India that all gods and goddesses of the ancient civilisation have survived in their original form in spite of continuous onslaughts on them. My religious experiments including a resolve to join a socio-religious order ended with a sense of nihilism and frustration. I thought Marx was not much off the mark when he said, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
All religions are enveloped in illusionary precepts and vague answers without hard evidence, which is obviously expected as all religions pre-dated modern science. No religion or saint has the answers to the basic questions of life and death. The fundamental questions confronting human conscience and existence have been: Is there a God or Creator? Who created God? Where is the abode of God? Where are Heaven and Hell located? Is there life after death? Does the soul exist? Is there transmigration of souls and rebirth? What is the mechanism and medium through which the soul enters another womb? When is the Day of Judgment? How did the Messengers of God reach earth ~ in rockets or space gear? Are humans different from other creatures created by God? Where do we come from and where do we go? What is the ultimate destiny of life? It would be an illusion to think in a religious way that man has been specifically designed by God and that they are the highest creation destined to rule the world. They are not.
The theory of evolution has disproved it. The difference between man and higher animals like elephants, horses, tigers, lions, cows, dogs, etc., is less than 2 per cent in DNA. Physically, Homo sapiens is the weakest and most delicate of all the higher animals. But with a higher intelligence quotient, power of speech and language, dexterity of the fingers and the ability to write, and a series of accidental inventions, humans have been able to build an artificial monstrous civilisation posing a dangerous threat to all other species who also have equal rights to live on this earth.
Basically, the civilised folks, in their original state, are no different from the tribes living like and along with other animals in the deep jungles of the Amazon, the Andamans and the Indonesian islands. They perhaps don’t worry about birth and death, the afterlife, religion and God and remain happy in the natural environment rejecting man-made civilisation. Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Donald S. Lopez Jr. in his book Buddhism and Science also attributes this to Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology.” It is a science which endeavours to find solutions to the pressing questions of life and the Universe.
The answers are to be sought in science and not in religion because religion is fast losing its relevance and importance in the scientific world. A galaxy of astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists and the “Cosmic Detectives” like the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Space Telescope (JWST) have been able to scan a major part of the known Universe and unravel some of its mysteries. These magnificent telescopes have also changed our understanding of the Universe. The vastness and complexity of the Universe are beyond the comprehension of humans.
For example, travelling at the speed of 300,000 km per second, it will take 225 trillion light years or 225,000,000,000,000 years for light to reach the end of the known universe. Hubble has discovered an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and it could be around 200 billion with further improvement in space telescope technology. It is estimated that there are 200 billion trillion or 200 sextillion stars in the sky. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way itself is so vast that it will take 100,000 light years to go from one end to another. ‘The Voyager’ would take 1,700,000,000 years to traverse the entire length of the Milky Way. Hubble’s Space and the James Webb Space Telescope have found no indication of intelligent life in the scanned universe or the location of heaven and hell or the abode of God.
The galaxies carrying billions of gigantic fireballs like our sun are running and rotating at break-neck speed in space but surprisingly not crashing into each other. The ancient civilisations knew well that the sun is the source of life on earth. That’s why they worshipped the sun god. Scientists have recently discovered that our sun has reached it’s mid-life and will transmit energy for another 4.5 billion years before it turns into a dead star. It is also conjectured that after another 1 billion years if the sun loses 10 per cent of its energy, our earth is likely to be frozen to death – a chilling possibility. That will be the end of human civilization and the end of all species.
Whether there will be a cold death or hot death, death is certain in due course. This is the “hard reality” that Hoyle spoke of. A man shouldn’t forget that human existence is intricately linked to the macro eco-system of the universe and the micro eco-system of the sun and the earth. The earth’s ecosystem calls for harmony, equality, and respect for all the nine million species who have the right to live in this world and amongst the Homo sapiens, men and women, of different regions and religions.
Humans suffer from an incurable disease (not present in animals) of arrogance and self-glorification. The misplaced superiority that man has been specially created to rule the earth at the cost of destruction of the earth’s delicate ecosystem and the environment has been self-destructive.
Marvelling at the stunningly beautiful and wonderful construct of the universe with billions of suns smiling at us, Homo sapiens should at least develop the humbleness to realise the insignificance of human life and futility of man’s achievements in the context of the Cosmic configuration and must understand that human destiny is intricately linked to the destiny of the earth, the destiny of the sun and the destiny of the universe itself.
Science vs religion – II
Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical.
By GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE
(The first part of this article reproduced from our Asia News Network partner in India, The Statesman, appeared on 25 Nov.)
“The known is finite, the unknown infinite”, the British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote in 1887, “Intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”
Before the last century, the vast unknown territory of inexplicability was ruled by religion.But the last century has seen a tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge, and ever since, science has been reclaiming more and more territory from religion so that scholars started predicting a diminishing relevance and eventual disappearance of religion from human society.
While it is true that religion’s stranglehold has been remarkably weakened in most countries during the last half-century, except in the diehard Islamic states which stubbornly refuse to reform Islam, the resurgence of religion in our contemporary socio-political life negates the prediction of religion’s demise.
There is too much religion on the streets now that is increasingly intruding unto our lives. It is not the spirituality that Sagan had talked about, it is religion in its crudest original form – bloodthirsty, demanding total and unquestioning allegiance from its followers who would not shy away from spilling the blood of non-believers. While science continues to conquer ever newer frontiers and invents technologies that are revolutionising our society, a full transition to a scientific society is not possible without the complete displacement of religion.
From medicine to biotech, from electronics to telecommunication, from AI to nanoscience, the progress of science during the last 50 years has completely transformed the way we organize society, conduct business, and connect with people for ideation.
The paradox is that while we are exploring the frontiers of science and technology driven by limitless human yearning and thirst for knowledge, we are also reinforcing the prejudices, bigotry, and intolerance of contrary ideas and beliefs in our social and public life with renewed vigour and pride. Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method.Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of applying the methods of natural science in the research of human affairs, which are essentially outside empirical scientific approaches.
The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics, etc. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical. This is always an epistemological problem in social sciences, and this is where religion is supposed to supplement the techno-scientific worldview of science to understand how Nature works her laws in the universe and in human society.
But Nature also includes her children and us humans, and her well-being depends on their activities. No one knows that better than us, especially at this juncture of time when the world is precariously poised between sustainability and irreversible devastation from uncontrolled human greed.
Religion was supposed to impart and promote morality, ethics, love, and compassion among humans to make them understand their symbiotic relationships with nature, with fellow beings, and with animals. Religion was supposed to teach humans to limit their greed, increase empathy towards others, and strike a harmonious balance with nature to make the world a better place for all to live. What it has done and the moral blindness it has promoted instead is for all to see and judge.
Religion today is relentlessly marching to colonize every aspect of our socio-economic and political life with increasing aggressiveness. Suffering has been trivialised by it, the pain has been glorified by it, killing has been sanctified by it and the tattered social fabric that has resulted is being flaunted with egotistical pleasure and pride.
Though it will be unfair to blame religion alone, it has to take a large share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is propelling us energetically to forget our humanity and respect for those who do not share our faith and driving us towards an Orwellian world where intercultural understanding, the richness of culture and diversity, and the ideal of an inclusive and pluralistic society are strongly denounced in favour of a blind pursuance of faith as dictated by its self-proclaimed guardians and their bigoted followers.
The ideal of peace and harmony are receding at the speed of light as religion strives to regain the territory it has lost to science and is countering science with what can best be described as a pseudoscience that is carving out a niche for itself – and a wide one at that.To quote Huxley again, “The question of all questions for humanity is that of the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the Cosmos.”
Religion derived sustenance from the concept that humanity was positioned proudly at the centre of God’s magnificent creation, the Earth, around which revolved everything, and humanity – the crowning achievement of God’s creation in his own image, the pinnacle of his divine handiwork, occupied the centre-stage on this earth.Science would shatter the concept, but not before thousands of Giordano Brunos were burned at the stake for holding a contrary view.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn convincingly explained how paradigm shifts take place in the history of science when one dominant worldview is replaced by another. He showed that scientific progress is like Darwinian evolution – a process of selection of one amongst all the competing theories that have the most predictive power puzzle-solving ability, a concept that was later supported by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image (1980).
But each such major paradigm shift has shaken the edifice of religion from which it could never recover. Thus, when the geocentric Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by the Copernican worldview, man lost his centrality in the scheme of things. Till then, heaven was in the sky, hell was underground and God in heaven ruled all three while religion regulated the entry to heaven or hell.
Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the Universe, and later Hubble displaced the entire Milky way from the centre of the universe, giving us instead an expanding universe of billions of galaxies in which neither is humanity at the centre of creation nor is the earth at the centre of the universe; in fact, the universe itself is one tiny dot in a multiverse of many universes.
Thus, God’s magnificent creation has been relegated to the position of a second-rate planet attached to a third-rate star, discarding religion’s medieval fancies. Today we are humbled by the immensity of the universe and mesmerized by the eternal silence of infinite space.
But for religion, the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos was not a question, it was an irrefutable truth questioning which meant inviting risk. Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelesticum on his deathbed in 1543, beyond the morbid reach of the Inquisition.
Galileo and Bruno were not that fortunate. Science established that neither does life enjoy any special privilege – countless worlds exist in deep space devoid of life, and countless species have become extinct in the course of evolution. We may be one someday, and going by our misdeeds on this planet, that day even may not be too far.
Darwin would finally dislodge humanity from the centre of the biological universe, giving it a lowly ancestor that was too humble compared to an almighty God to be a creator of such intelligence as possessed by man. Thankfully, the inquisition was dead, but prejudiced minds that shun logic were not. They are again back at the centre stage in force, flaunting scriptures, dictating how we should conduct ourselves, threatening to push us into a hell of ignominy and violence if we disobey.
Creationism is still being taught in many US public schools, despite the Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Half the people in the USA still don’t believe in evolution, their share in India is unknown. But here, vigorous attempts are now on somehow bringing God inside the classroom in any guise, be it a hijab, or anything else.
Worship only makes you a slave. A slave forgets his reason, and his purpose for existence, and ultimately becomes an automaton to serve the master – Religion – and obey its commands without thinking.Religion is not the source of spirituality, peace, morality, virtue, and ethics any longer. Its principles may be eternal, but its methods are gross. It has now become the source of violence, hatred, unconcealed greed, corruption, and a road to power.
Instead of breaking barriers, it is building them afresh, destroying the very roots upon which mankind has built civilizations through the millennia. Don’t expect the State to control religion and the street will always celebrate it with ever-ostentatious pomp and splendour. It is therefore for us citizens to shield our children from the corrupting influences of religion. It has no place in the fabric of the mind of civilized men and women, just as God has no place in the fabric of the space-time that science tries to untangle. We don’t need the ancient wisdom of the spirit to guide us, because religion which was supposed to imbibe it has lost its divinity. It is now for science to redeem religion.
A dreamer’s dream
Last night as usual I watched the local news, leaving aside the World News and the FIFA matches on TV, looking for some encour-aging news about the financial situation in our country. On all TV Channels The daily scenes in Parliament are always the same very chaotic and a waste of time to listen. The arguments in Parliament resembles the Maria Kade fish market between some women, accusing one another in filth.
Rather disappointed I fell asleep. I dreamt I was at the Aragalaya on the Galle Face Green packed with jolly enthusiastic people seemed on holiday-spirit singing and enjoying the music, and some drowning the noise with speeches through loudspeakers. Walking around I noticed there was a bus with a full load of passengers stuck and surrounded by a mob who was trying to topple it.
Finally the bus toppled and they all clapped and cheered not caring for the poor frightened passengers in the bus. One of the mob leaders gave a speeh and then got the bus upright, and tried to start it, but couldn’t. Then they pushed and it wouldn’t start as the tank was empty . The wounded passengers came out crying some wounded with fractures and bleeding. Someone phoned for ambulances but none came. To my horror the Aragalaya then attacked that mob who toppled the bus and in the utter choas I woke up in a cold swept.
Recollecting my dream I wondered whether this dream is similar to what would happen to our country.
D. L. Sirimanne,
How many people can the Earth sustain?
=On Nov 15 November 2022, we became a world of 8 billion people.
It’s a milestone we can celebrate, and an occasion to reflect: How can we create a world in which all 8 billion of us can thrive? The growth of our population is a testament to humanity’s achievements, including reductions in poverty and gender inequality, advancements in health care, and expanded access to education. These have resulted in more women surviving childbirth, more children surviving their early years, and longer, healthier lifespans, decade after decade.
Looking beyond the averages, at the populations of countries and regions, the picture is much more nuanced – and quickly takes us beyond the numbers themselves. Stark disparities in life expectancy point to unequal access to health care, opportunities and resources, and unequal burdens of violence, conflict, poverty and ill health.
Birth rates vary from country to country, with some populations still growing fast, others beginning to shrink. But underlying these trends, whichever way they point, is a widespread lack of choice. Discrimination, poverty and crisis – as well as coercive policies that violate the reproductive rights of women and girls – put sexual and reproductive health care and information, including contraception and sex education, out of reach for far too many people.
We face serious challenges as a global community, including the mounting impacts of climate change, ongoing conflicts and forced displacement. To meet them, we need resilient countries and communities. And that means investing in people and making our societies inclusive, so that everyone is afforded a quality of life that allows them to thrive in our changing world.
To build demographic resilience, we need to invest in better infrastructure, education and health care, and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. We need to systematically remove the barriers – based on gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or migration status – that prevent people from accessing the services and opportunities they need to thrive.
We need to rethink models of economic growth and development that have led to overconsumption and fuelled violence, exploitation, environmental degradation and climate change, and we need to ensure that the poorest countries – which did not create these problems, yet bear the brunt of their impacts – have the resources to build the resilience and well-being of their growing populations.
We need to understand and anticipate demographic trends, so that governments can make informed policies and resource allocations to equip their populations with the right skills, tools and opportunities.
But while demographic trends can help guide the policy choices we make as societies, there are other choices – including if and when to have children – that policy cannot dictate, because they belong to each individual. This right to bodily autonomy underlies the full range of our human rights, forming a foundation for resilient, inclusive and thriving societies that can meet the challenges of our world. When our bodies and futures are our own, we are #8BillionStrong.
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