Revealing fact or reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in Indian society

Whenever scientists achieve a breakthrough in understanding the fundamental laws of nature, it is often accompanied by an age-old question: has science nailed its final nail on the coffin of religion? This debate was reignited in 2016 with the detection of gravitational waves.

Merging of two black holes [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) announced that the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detectors in the US in Hanford, Washington and in Livingston, Louisiana had directly observed gravitational waves on 14 September 2015. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 on the basis of his theory of general relativity. These waves are ripples in space-time (space and time as a continuum of four dimensions) created by large cosmic events such as the merger of two massive black holes. The 2015 LIGO detection not only confirmed Einstein’s prediction but also strengthened the emerging field of gravitational-wave astronomy, allowing us to observe early cosmic processes, including events that immediately followed the Big Bang. Does the observation of gravitational waves have any significance for understanding the relation between scientific knowledge and religious faith? What are the societal implications for this never-ending debate?

An opportunity to reflect upon these questions was the International Symposium on “The Discovery of Gravitational Waves and the Future of Religion and Society” held in Pune, India from January 20-23, 2017, organized by the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (IISR) Delhi and the Centre for Science and Religion Studies of Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), a Catholic seminary in Pune.

India played a significant role in the 2015 detection of gravitational waves. At the time of the announcement, LSC had 61 Indian scientists from nine institutions. The discovery paper has 35 authors from these institutions. Given this interesting background, the Pune symposium saw scientists of various disciplines, historians and philosophers of science, and theologians, from India and abroad. In this summary, we shall briefly look at some of the broad themes that emerged from the four-day symposium.

Science: the only unraveller of secrets?

The inaugural address was delivered by Dr Sanjeev Dhurandhar of the Inter-University Council of Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune. Dr. Dhurandhar led one of two Indian groups that contributed significantly to the LIGO detection of gravitational waves (GW), particularly in the analysis and filtering of the GW signal data. He described the nature of Indian involvement in the discovery and shared how decades of patient observation and analysis led to the detection. Dr. Job Kozhamthodam SJ, Professor of Cosmology and Philosophy of Science at JDV and the symposium convenor indicated that the detection of GW is another example of the indomitable spirit of science to unravel the secrets of the universe. As a Jesuit priest, he wondered if this scientific milestone necessitates a reinterpretation of the traditional understanding of God and the role of religion in human society. He pointed out that this “discovery of the century,” has further confirmed the faith of a genuine religious person since it has been able to transform what was hitherto a statement of religious faith (e.g., God is Almighty) into a matter of scientific fact.

Science and religion: two windows to understand the universe

Dr Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ, explained that the GW detection enables us to observe and understand cosmic events in hitherto unavailable ways. This ability, he said, could be compared with the extra-sensory abilities of certain species like echo-location of bats and electro-reception of platypus. Can this new discovery help us beyond utilitarian benefits? On this note he referred to Freeman Dyson who said that “Science and religion are two windows… to understand the big universe outside… both are worthy of respect”. Dr. Pandikattu hoped that these discoveries can lead us to understand deeper questions around the meaning of life.

In a similar vein, Dr Victor Ferrao SJ referred to the representation of the GW detection as a brief chirp. “Listening”, he said, was crucial in identifying the GW from all the other external noise signals. The metaphor of “listening” to GW can serve as a signpost for practitioners of science and religion to “listen” more patiently and carefully. He pointed out that the use of this metaphor is useful in India where religion is interwoven with its social fabric. However, he was concerned that science is used as a means for politicians to validate their vote-bank focused programs.

Democratizing science to serve society

Dr Noel D’Costa, Professor of Philosophy of Science at Rachol Seminary Goa, agreed that the discovery of GW opens up new possibilities for understanding the origins of the universe. But he pointed out that we only know as little as 4.9% of what constitutes the universe. We still do not know much about dark energy (68.3%) and dark matter (26.8%) which form the greater part of the universe. He suggested that this calls for an engagement with what constitutes “knowing” – to accept that the more we “know” about the universe, there is so much more that we need to “know” further. He suggested that we learn from alternate knowledge systems in India, including native knowledge traditions, which do not place as much emphasis as on “knowing” about everything.

Dr Sonajharia Minz, a computational scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, spoke about automatons (self operating mechanisms) which can be programmed to follow a sequence of operations. She submitted that such automatons have been used in deciphering patterns where there appears to be none. Big data analytics is one recent area where automatons are put to maximum use. But she suggested that automatons can also be used to decipher meaning hidden in cultural artefacts. Drawing from Fritjof Capra’s ideas of the world as an automaton, she explained the benefits of computational science in identifying the linkages between processes, forms and matter to unravel hidden patterns of meaning – something she has attempted in digitizing Indian indigenous languages.

Fr. Vincent Braganza SJ shared that as a Jesuit priest-biochemist, his “eco-spirituality” helped him pursue scientific research which benefits marginalized communities. This pursuit, he attributed to the relationship he shared with a “personal” God. But he expressed his concern that religion today needs to be re-invented in the vocabulary of science. For instance, he welcomed ongoing research in neurobiology which seeks answers to the existence of the soul. He felt that scientific advances can help to enrich belief systems, like two parallel tracks of a railway line.

But can science work without considering the moral or ethical implications? Sr. Beena Jose, a CMC sister and professor of chemistry at Vimala College, Thirssur, Kerala, answered this in the context of the synthesis of life in the laboratory. She explained that the Catholic Church took not just a theological stand, but a moral stand, regarding genetic modification and gene therapy. Personally, she indicated that emerging scientific research, like Crispr-Cas9, can proceed unrestricted as long as it does not undermine the dignity of human life, including the human embryo.

Do we need religion to determine our moral and ethical stand? Dr Anjali D’Souza distinguished between two kinds of atheism: active, where the person actively declares that God does not exist, and passive, where the person merely lacks belief in God. If one were to look at the history of Nobel laureates, they were all conferred the award for their contributions to science and society. However, many of them were self-professed atheists. So she wondered if faith in God is a necessary condition for a scientist to contribute to society.

Enriching theology and spirituality with science

History of the Universe [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Dr. Gabriele Gionti SJ, an astrophysicist from the Vatican Observatory, shared that it was the 1964 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) which helped scientists to look very far into the past, as much as 10-44 seconds after the Big Bang itself. The detection of GW adds to this discovery and helps to understand the early expansion of the universe. However, this does not mean that we are close to “looking” at “Creation” itself. “Creation” is a theological construct, he said, and has to be distinguished from the chronological “beginning” which the astronomical sciences can help us reconstruct.

Dwelling on this theme, Dr. Philippe Quentin, a French physicist, outlined a “simplistic” model of eternity using the theological doctrines of Boethius and Einstein’s idea of “simultaneity”. While entities in the physical and meta-physical worlds may appear incompatible, he proposed this model as a modern day, science “parable”. He suggested that this can help resolve the misinterpretation of “creation” with “beginning”. He felt that, scientific conceptualisations, like parables, may serve to renew some faith-related issues as well.

Chemists from Czechoslovakia, Dr Frank and Dr Geraldine Edith Mikes, spoke about the role of chemistry in evolution and the lessons it offers for Catholic theology. Scientists, they submitted, should accept that our knowledge of nature is partial. This realization gives science the capacity to correct and improve itself. Can religions also develop this capacity, they asked, for they believed that scientific discoveries about the cosmology can enrich religious creeds. This will help avoid a dichotomy between the practice of science and religion. They added that the focus of religion should be the “wholeness and fulfilment of joy”. In this context, drawing from Morowitz, they proposed the chemical process of “bonding” as a metaphor for Creation. Religion can help look beyond chemical processes: to see “love” as the highest form of chemical “bonding” as Teilhard de Chardin suggested.

Science, eastern traditions and beyond

Dr. John Selvamani, professor at Fu Jen University, Taipei, Taiwan, shared that both science and religion serve only utilitarian ends in today’s society. It is merely the fulfilment of immediate needs that seems to drive the faithful. The larger questions about the meaning of life or human existence do not concern today’s religious, even in the East. But he observed that eastern traditions do not see science and religion as two distinct forms of belief. As a result, the national health agencies (in Taiwan) offer insurance coverage to both the western and traditional forms of medicine.

Dr. Hardev Singh Virk, an astrophysicist, spoke about the concepts of redemption and salvation outlined in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the holy book of the Sikhs. According to SGGS, the Creator does not place any restraints on the means of saving humanity from their spiritual and social destruction. Hence, science as a method of salvation is well within the scriptural mandate, he said. Similarly, Dr. Kishore Marathe (a mathematician) and Dr. SG Mirajgaonkar (a management professional) pointed out that the Hindu scriptures, especially the Advaita Vedanta, encouraged the pursuit of knowledge in the service of humans. Hence, they submitted that Indian religious traditions do not place any moral restrictions on practising science. Dr. M Arif, an entomologist, shared that Islamic scriptures stated that all of Creation is to be celebrated by humans, with the caution that humans should not cause pain and suffering to God’s creation. This was enshrined in the Islamic practice of Halal (that which is permissible). Dr. Murali Vallabhan shared how various religions in India have incorporated “sustainable development” within their religious practice. People of various faiths have consciously replaced some of their age-old religious practices with more ecologically friendly ones and have started “going green” in their rituals and religious activities.

Dr. Binoy Pichalakkattu, a statistician, considered gravitational waves as an “extra-scientific reality” whose existence was proven through the use of empirically verifiable models. He wondered if similar models could be used to verify and predict the existence of “meta-scientific realities” like love and happiness. He proceeded to share an epistemological framework for predicting meta-scientific realities using the logic of fuzzy mathematics.

From the meta-scientific to the para-normal, Dr. Merhra Shrikhande, an opthalmologist, drew upon her belief in God and her experiences in researching the paranormal. She believed that she was called to research the near-death experiences of patients on their death bed. She further added that even though researching the paranormal was outside the realm of rationality as we know it, it still did not contradict her scientific training and medical practice.

Science: powerful or all-powerful?

Prof. Dhruv Raina, a historian and philosopher of science from JNU, New Delhi, suggested that we re-visit the way questions are framed in the context of the relationship between science and religion. Prof. Raina submitted that scholarly attention is resting too much on the logic of the difference between science and religion. But these two cultures share more in common than we accept. He pointed out that we have now reached the era of a “Grand Reversal” wherein an ironic reversal of roles is taking place; for instance, religion now seeks legitimacy from science. Understanding this “scientification of society” requires that we re-think the binaries of science and religion, and explore alternate perspectives on understanding the role of science and religion in society today.

Fr. Stephen Jeyard, a philosopher of science, shifted focus to the nature of scientific theories. Drawing from Poincare and others, Fr. Jeyard pointed out that theories are not always the truest descriptions of reality, though they may represent reality in a simple yet exact manner. He also highlighted the perils of relying only on empirical data. Referring to Kuhn, he shared that the choice of a theory by scientists is not always rational. He also pointed out that observations are not purely objective but perceptual, as proposed by Shapere. Based on these, Jeyard agreed with Raina that we must be cautious and not overdo the metaphor of unravelling the “marvels of the universe”. We do have highly effective and descriptive models to help us understand nature, but these do not necessarily give us an accurate picture of reality. Science is indeed a powerful tool, but not all-powerful.

In hindsight

The symposium was a useful occasion to remind ourselves that scientific discoveries, however big or small, can have different meanings for different people. It also showed how theologians and the faithful (at least in the mainstream) do not see scientific breakthroughs as a threat to their belief. But the workshop also exposed that there is a reversal of roles today, as Prof. Dhruv Raina pointed out. Today, science generally seems to lead the way and religion tows behind, meekly even. Do these findings really help to deepen religious beliefs and ideas? Do these “marvellous” discoveries offer any significance to spirituality at the individual level? These were questions that continued to remain with the participants at the end of the symposium.

A diversity of voices from different backgrounds – scientific, religious, social and national – did create a unique and interesting milieu for the discussions to take root firmly. It is hoped that these discussions will continue to take shape in the classrooms for students of the physical and the social sciences as well as of philosophy and theology, to think about the various ways in which science and religion continue to interact today.

In the final evaluation of the symposium by the participants, all agreed that such interactions and exchange of views should continue. These discussions renew the classical themes in STS (science, technology & society) studies, very much related to the entanglements between beliefs and truths shaping scientific knowledge(s).

A brief version of this report was featured in Backchannels, the online newsletter of Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S)


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