Science and Religion: Two Shades of Why

Ganesh with a mobile phone. See? No conflict here. (Adrian Pope/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images)

Yesterday I blogged about Vatican astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno's thoughts on the relationship between science and religion -- and the conflict that sometimes emerges there. I thought the planetary scientists turned Jesuit brother presented a very positive, thought-provoking view on the matter. But in the interest of providing another take less rooted in Western monotheism, I thought we'd turn to Varadaraja V. Raman.

Raman is emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology and, if you tune into Krista Tippett's radio program "Speaking of Faith," you probably heard him speak on the 2007 episode "The Heart's Reason: Hinduism and Science."

Here in the United States, discussions of religion and science are typically grounds for Internet flame wars, ridiculous science textbook edits and the occasional monkey trial. But do they have this sort of conflict in India between Hinduism and science? Raman says no.

"In the Hindu world, fortunately, there was a clear understanding of what constitutes religious knowledge inside experience on the one hand and what may be called intellectual, analytical, secular knowledge," he told Tippett. "This distinction is much more clear, it seems to me, in the Hindu world, which is why we don't have this kind of conflict."

If you're unclear on what he's saying there, don't fret. Raman further explains that this distinction can easily be discerned by looking at the word "why."

First, there's "why" in the causative sense: "Why am I unhappy?" Or more simply, "What is the cause of my unhappiness?" An effect is dependent upon prior events. The causative "why" looks to the past for answers.

Then there's "why" in the teleological sense. Teleology is the philosophical study of design and purpose. It looks to an unknowable future. From this viewpoint, "Why am I unhappy?" is a much deeper question. Instead of seeking to connect a past cause with the resulting sadness, it ponders the ultimate purpose and meaning of that sadness. The question is more, "When my life, legacy or the world itself has ended, what significance will this unhappiness have had?"

The causative "why" is the domain of science, while the teleological "why" is obviously more the domain of an all-knowing god, author or time-traveling super computer.

This is where it gets really interesting. In Raman's essay "Why in Science and Why in Religion," he points out that while the difference between the two "whys" has to be implied in most European languages, the Tamil language has two separate words, one for the causative sense and one for the teleological.

Consider the following quote from the essay, which you can find here:

"Recognizing that science can be successful in answering one type of question, and relegating to others (religion, philosophy, poetry) the other kind, may be wise. It would also be good if religion gracefully concedes to science the responsibility of answering why in the causative sense." -- Varadaraja V. Raman

So there you have it, another thought on how science and metaphysics may inhabit a single mind.

What do you think? Bonus points for not insulting any esteemed scientists or Hindu deities.