In today’s world, we all seem to lead very fast paced lives. We get very little time to actually stop, think, and contemplate. I feel it is very important for one to reflect. Reflect upon the past, the present and the future – and more importantly, reflect on the big questions of what, and how and why. What Socrates uttered over two millennia back is still relevant today, no matter how drastically the world may have changed – ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’. I try my best to always find time to look beyond the clockwork of daily life, and face some of the difficult questions that usually remain suppressed within the depths of our minds – What is the world that we live in? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How do our minds work? What is our mind? What am I? Let me try and narrate my own belief system that I have synthesized over the years – my own attempts at examining the world and our lives.
Having grown up in a big city to parents who are both doctors, I am fortunate to always have had the opportunity to think freely. When it came to belief, there was never any belief system that was ever ‘forced’ upon me. But then again, one can never escape dominant paradigms of belief – beliefs I took for granted as truth, till you start to question them. My school education urged me to develop a scientific temper. Let this be the starting point of my narrative. Science was that subject we learnt in school that seemed to be able to answer every single question that we came up with about the world we live in. What are trees made of? Why do we fall ill? Why is fire hot? To me, science was everything I needed to understand the universe. And this instilled in me a sense of power and confidence. I learnt to question ‘unscientific’ beliefs, and to question superstition. I began to develop a distaste towards religion. I found no point in praying to a God I had no reason in believing. I could never comprehend the stupidity of religious rituals. But there was one thing I never asked myself. One thing I never fully understood – What is science?
It was only after I had started with my undergraduate studies that I began to ask myself this question. I began to read about what other ‘famous’ thinkers had to say about science. And I realized that science is merely a tool. The scientific method is a tool that we employ to try and find out more about our universe. It relies chiefly on analyzing empirical evidence to arrive at hypotheses, which can be tested out in the light of new and further evidence. This systematic analysis of empirical data allows us to uncover correlations. If these correlations hold true in the light of all further data, they become theories and eventually ‘laws’. In this manner of observation and inference, science can give us valuable insights on the functioning of the universe.
I was, for quite a couple of years, satisfied with my understanding. But then I chanced upon ‘An Outline of Philosophy’, by Bertrand Russell. And it shook me up again. It was my first exposure to the world of philosophy. I had never known what philosophy was. The word had always brought up connotations of spirituality and how-to-lead-your-life. This was the first time I was engaging with the field. I had stepped into a vast world.
The first thing that shook the foundations of my earlier belief systems was the question of epistemology. What is knowledge, and what can we know? I was faced with the famous Cartesian dilemma of mind and matter. Everything we know, we know through our senses. And sensory information is not constant. A red ball is black in blue light, while a white ball will appear red in red light. We get different empirical data for what appears to be the same object. Can empirical experience then be taken to be the true source of knowledge? And since the entirety of science operates strictly within the domain of empirical evidence, then how can we rely on science to give us answers to the questions about the nature of the universe? As I drifted deeper into the arguments put forth by other thinkers, also began to realize that the scientific method is built upon the idea that the laws of nature are universal and do not change. Thus, if a very large amount of data is consistent with a certain scientific theory, then by inductive reasoning, the theory becomes a law. But can we trust inductive reasoning. As C.D Broad remarked, ‘Induction is the glory of Science and the scandal of Philosophy.’ My belief in science had been shaken.
It was around this time that I began to change the way I saw the world. The question of the ‘meaning of life’, that had been dormant in me all this while, came to the surface. Every living creature on the face of the earth seems to be genetically programmed to do two things – to survive and the reproduce. It is the survival of self and the survival of the species/progeny. But why? For millions of years, individual human beings have been born, have grown up, have reproduced, and have died. It is a cycle that has been in motion since the dawn of life in this universe. Even in our daily lives, most of the things that we do can be traced down to the ultimate end of either survival or reproduction. The how of it, science has at least attempted to answer. But what about the why of it? Why do we survive? What is the meaning of life?
Intuitively, I had an answer. Not everything that we do can actually be broken down to survival or reproduction. There are things we do for our own fulfillment. Some things that move us within, and provide us with meaning, and give us a reason to live. In the words of the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, ‘human beings are meaning seeking creatures’. We seek meaning in everything we see or do. We long for those moments of transcendence that ‘momentarily lift us beyond ourselves’. I am a violinist. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach had been something that had always touched me. Something that I considered to be my very own. Something that had become an integral part of who I am. There were other things too. My favorite poets, and their poems. Poems which made me feel happy and moved me. I began to realize that these transcendent moments were what I lived for. I realized that every one of us have these things which give them moments of transcendence. But not everyone is able to achieve those moments often because survival itself becomes a burden. To me, those moments of transcendence was the meaning life. Moments when we transcend our everyday survival and seem to reach beyond. Those moments are what we live for.
A major question now stared me in the face. If what we live for is indeed something ‘within’ us, – something that exists solely within the domain of our consciousness, then where does science figure in all of this? Science deals with empirical evidence. Are our emotions subject to the scientific method? Psychology is certainly discipline which attempts to bridge this divide. But my enquiries went in a different direction. I realized that our transcendent moments, or the cognitive mechanisms that hive rise to these moments do not follow reason. I can never give a logical or a rational explanation as to why I like the music of Bach, or the poems of Tagore. I can break them down to individual parameters and try and analyze them, but somewhere down the line, no matter how finely I analyze them, there will always be an element of my own values. Someone may dislike a poem citing the very same parameter that I cite to absolutely love it. Transcendence does not follow reason. Yet it gives us a reason to live.
This finally brought me to the question of faith. Faith is often described as beliefs we hold when there is no rational reason for belief. I was the very same idea of faith that I so loathed while I was at school. But now I realized that faith is something that we cannot always escape. As humans, we seek meaning, and we fall into despair if our lives are devoid of the same. Faith creeps in different forms, and gives us a reason to live. Earlier, to me, faith was blind belief in a certain cult, or dogma, or religion. I now realize that faith can be far more intricate than that. It can touch us on a very personal level. If somebody says that he or she hates the music of Bach, I will not harm him –that may happen in the case of collective faith systems found in most organized religions or cults – but at some level, it will move me away from that person. Yet, all this while, there is no rational grounding for my affinity or that person’s dislike for the same music – the same sequence of sound frequencies sounded in the same rhythmic pattern.
This brings me to my present belief system. I hold science as dear to me as I ever held it when I was younger. But now I feel that I have a more informed understanding of science and its domain. I believe, that despite the fact that science operates within a very limited domain, it is the only tool that we have to know anything about the universe. And despite all its limitations, it is the only way that we can change our physical lives for the better. I have also come to understand that faith is a human need. The transcendence that I achieve listening to music, somebody else achieves through religious ritual. It is all faith at play. I am not religious at all. Yet, I am sympathetic to those who transcend through religion. It is sad that organized collective faith often leads to terrible deeds. It is also sad that sometimes myths lie in conflict with the scientific method. They attempt to give answers about the nature of the universe – answers that are against all empirical evidence. To me science and religion operate in separate domains. Science works within the domain of the rational, while religion works within the domain of the transcendental. It is sad that these domains are often in conflict, but they need not be. Religion is merely a vehicle of faith. It is a myth.
But again, as Karen Armstrong says, we humans need myth to live. Art is no less a myth. Music, poetry, dance, drama – these are all man made myths that keep us going. Because if, through the process of survival, we lose out on what we live for, then why survive?