Sri Aurobindo on Science
What is to be gained by making the scientist aware of Sri Aurobindo's thought?
Rationality: Sri Aurobindo would want scientists to
become rational. This may appear a none too lofty or difficult accomplishment,
but it would be an enormous advancement for humanity, including its most
thinking sections. What goes by the name of science today, even good science,
is permeated with convention, superstition, prejudice and arbitrary limitation.
A former President of the World Academy of Art & Sciences confided years
ago that most scientists judge the validity of a statement by the status of
person who stated it, rather than by its content. When Arthur Conan Doyle
argued for the existence of occult phenomena, his opponent asked if he could give
the names of professors who supported his view. Doyle gave 40 names. This is
not rationality. Rationality needs to know whether or not occult phenomena are
true, not who else supports his view. The recent history of science is replete
with examples of ideas that were scoffed at, not on rational grounds, but
simply because they contradicted established thought or the words of the
When an internationally renown biologist can say with a straight face that all cases of parapsychological phenomena have been proven bogus beyond a shadow of a doubt or that the secret of free will has been uncovered by an observation of one brain-injured old woman, he casts rationality to the wind. Even the most brilliant cannot resist the pressure of society, e.g. when Einstein adds a fudge factor to his theory, because it suggests that the universe is expanding rather than static. Look back on almost every scientific breakthrough and you find that the initial response of the scientific community, including its leaders, is often irrational rejection, rather than rational consideration.
Sri Aurobindo would argue that rationality is a power of mind, and therefore of Ignorance. But, at least, it is a power of mental man in whom mind has emerged from domination of the vital, emotional, social and personal. Perhaps there are very few truly mental individuals. People will resent it if someone labels scientists irrational. Consideration of what Sri Aurobindo says about the higher than mental states will indirectly help the emergence of the pure (rational) mind in its own right. That would be a major breakthrough.
Implicit Assumptions: Sri Aurobindo would ask for a
thorough re-examination of the underlying premises on which science is based,
which is essential for its future evolution as a body of knowledge. Science
arose as a reaction to the superstition and dogma of religion during the Middle
Ages and sought a physical means for the validation of knowledge through the
scientific method. In the process, it based itself on the implicit assumption
that all material phenomena, in fact all vital and mental phenomena as well,
are the products of physical processes. This is to proclaim that matter is the
sole reality, matter is Brahman. Sri Aurobindo calls it Monism of Matter.
The work of English biologist Rupert Sheldrake was mentioned at an international scientific meeting a few years ago, several members including a leading biologist and a Nobel Laureate in medicine scoffed at his pseudo-science. But whether one agrees with Sheldrake or not, he has applied the scientific method to non-material phenomena and postulated a non-material system of causality that accurately predicts experimental results which are not explicable by purely material theories.
When a leading biologist concedes that a purely material explanation for the first creation of life depends on events that are so improbable that all the computers on earth cannot measure the probability, Sri Aurobindo would want science to openly search for and examine other, non-material, rational systems of thought (including his own), rather than insist on forcing the facts into the old material formulas.
Sri Aurobindo quotes the ancient Vedanta to the effect that when a phenomena exhibits several degrees of quality, its inherent nature should be judged by the highest expression of the characteristics it exhibits, not by the lowest. According to this principle, when matter and material energy give rise to living systems and mental consciousness, we must re-examine our conception of the inherent qualities of matter to recognize the involved principles of life and consciousness as inherent attributes of matter (and indeed more fundamental attributes than atomic structure or quantum mechanics), rather than ignoring the entire higher range of human emotional, mental, artistic and spiritual experience or trying to reduce life and consciousness to artifacts of mechanical, physical systems. Re-examination of this single assumption would open up an enormous field of discovery in the physical sciences, enlighten issues of physics that defy ‘physical explanations’ and force scientists into speculation about higher physical dimensions, provide a bridge for understanding the interaction between matter, life energy and mental consciousness, provide a foundation for the development of economics, psychology, sociology and management into real sciences. As discoveries in matter have been applied to shed light on social and psychological processes, science would discover that discoveries in the human sciences offer much more powerful insights into the true nature of matter and physical processes, for the simply reason that the human processes are more conscious and therefore more accessible to observation but adhere to the same fundamental principles as matter.
3. Limitations of Mental Knowledge: Recognize the inherent limitations of rationale thought as a means of knowledge, so that mind can begin to consciously develop its higher capacities. The change in mental attitude is the key to creating that opening to higher ways of knowing. Science should examine the nature of mental knowledge and discover its character and limitations. Mind knows by division of the whole into an infinite number of parts and by an aggregation of parts to form composite wholes. The more it concentrates on knowing the part, the more it abstracts the part from the whole and loses the context in which it exists and is real. Sri Aurobindo would want science to discover and test the power of mental silence to reveal higher knowledge and to help develop the intuitive faculty on a much wider basis.
4. Impact of Motive: Recognize that the nature of scientific discovery, as a form of human creativity, depends on the intention, motive and consciousness of the scientist. The massive side effects generated by modern science are a reflection of the motives of the scientist. Science as a power of knowledge cannot validly divorce itself from the consequences of applying that knowledge. A study of Sri Aurobindo would lead to the realization that knowledge, motive and consequences in life are closely related. Science cannot divorce itself from issues of good or evil. It must learn how to subject its activities to a scrutiny of this type and submit itself to the type of regulation that society imposes on other major sources of power that pose potentially catastrophic consequences. It must come to accept that Knowledge sought and applied with the right motive with the right consciousness does not lead to wrong consequences.
5. Need for a Metaphysic: Recognize that true knowledge must integrate empiricism with metaphysics (pure thought) and spiritual experience: Science as empiricism is a very partial and inadequate means of discovering essential reality. At best, it can discover the external or extrinsic why or how of things, but never the intrinsic determining cause or process. Sri Aurobindo would want science to accept the essential role of metaphysics and to formulate the soundest possible metaphysical foundation of rational thought as the basis for its empiricism.
6. Theories of Creation: Consider all available theories of the process of creation. The materialist formula of chance and necessity is one possible theory of manifestation that is strongest when applied to purely physical phenomena and progressively weaker as it is extended to life, mind and pure consciousness. As a leading physicist recently conceded, a third hypothesis based on Intention is equally rational and worthy of examination. If there is any validity in the search by science for a unifying theory of creation, then science should give full consideration to the characteristics of creation in life and mind as exemplified by creative processes in social development, business, and the arts, based on the hypothesis that consciousness rather than material energy is the creator.
7. Principles for Experimentation: Apply standards for empirical research appropriate to each field of study: Applying the principles of physical measurement and experimentation to the study of life, mind and consciousness is like using a telescope to hear or a microscope to smell. These fields can be subject to rigorous experimentation, but only on their own terms or plane of existence. The principles and processes of life (and life response) need to be scientifically studied with reference to the corresponding inner conditions of consciousness (thoughts, attitudes, intentions) that relate to and govern external events.
8. Laws of Nature: Discover the laws and character of life and mind: Sri Aurobindo says that science knows only laws of matter, not the laws of life, laws of mind and laws of supermind. All these it can discover. Presently, science does not even recognize the existence of any of these planes other than as expressions of material processes, let alone acknowledge that they are subject to laws of their own plane. When life events ‘respond’ to our actions, attitude, feelings or thoughts, life obeys laws that can be physically observed and scientifically studied. Until now, it is mainly the great writers have done so and not with the systematic rigor that science could bring to the study. This would have immense practical implications for humanity’s understanding of life, society, collective development and individual accomplishment.
9. Acquiring Mastery of Creative Processes: Above and beyond all these, Sri Aurobindo says that even if humanity were to discover all the laws of matter, life, mind and supermind, it would still not have realized the potential of the race. Science would have gained knowledge of the laws of nature and some mastery in applying them. But human potential is not limited to using the tools nature has fashioned. It has the capacity to become the creator, the power that makes the rules and changes the laws to suit its own purposes. That distant prospect would be the ultimate fulfillment of man’s quest for knowledge and mastery.
Comments on John Gribbon’s In The Beginning: After Cobe & Before The Big Bang
Precision of Universal Laws: In the chapter on Cosmic Determinants of The
Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo argues that science knows the extrinsic why and
how of things, but not the intrinsic why. Gribbon lists several good examples
of this phenomena in the chapter on Goldilock Effect where he describes
physical laws or values that are “fixed” in precisely the right manner to
support the creation of the universe and life on earth, e.g. the speed of
light, the excited energy state of carbon and oxygen, the instability of
diprotons and dineutrons, the nature of the hydrogen bond, the flatness
parameter of our universe. Even a slight change in these variables might have
meant no universe at all or no possibility of life. Gribbon argues that this
could not have occurred by chance. He attributes it to a process of natural
selection that determines which of all possible universes survive and states
that these laws are actually evolving. His assertion that the laws are evolving
by selection seems highly speculative, but observation that the precise
values of these laws are critical, inexplicable and beyond possibility of
coincidence is quite significant.
Sri Aurobindo observed before 1914 that indeed the laws of nature are constantly evolving, but he argues that the source of that evolution is Conscious Will that has framed the laws of nature to provide a stable basis for its creative processes in the universe and is always free to modify those processes to suit its evolving intention.
As the physical values (e.g. speed of light, force of gravity) determine the universe and life on earth, our human values (e.g. the value we place on money, people, honesty, organization, harmony, etc.) determine the type of life that manifests around us. As small changes in the physical values in nature would result in a very different universe or none at all, small changes in individual values would create a very different life. The conscious individual has the power to change those values.
out of Nothing: Gribbon makes several observations that parallel Sri
Aurobindo’s explanation of the process of creation. Gribbon explains that
gravitation is negative energy relative to electric energy (covered by e = mc2)
which is positive. He observes that the positive and negative energy in the
universe are equal and that the energy required to create a universe from a
black hole (e.g. our universe) is zero. Scientists observe that energy can
spontaneously appear in the quantum vacuum and then immediately disappear as an
expression of the uncertainty principle applied to energy and time. He suggests
that our universe may be such a manifestation of something out of nothing.
Sri Aurobindo says that Being manifests out of Non-Being and that both Being and Non-being are expressions of something greater and inclusive of both, which he calls the Absolute. Mind can see either Being or Non-being, only supermind can know the Absolute. He says that realization of this truth carries the power of creation. In The Life Divine he explains manifestation as a process of differentiation and apparent division into opposite values, apparent.
3. Nature of Energy: Sri Aurobindo describes matter is the final link in the chain of projection from Conscious Being to Supermind to Mind to Life to Matter. We know that energy of mental consciousness can generate energy of life and material energy (as a sexually arousing thought can stimulate the body). We know also that material energy in the form of sensation can stimulate vital energy and generate mental thought. Science views all energy as material and does not recognize the existence of life or mental or spiritual energy. He says that all forms of energy related to matter, including electric energy, gravity, nervous and mental energy are actually forms of Life energy. The nature of the relationship and conversion of material energy into life and mental energy and vice versa may hold a clue for the true nature of material energy. Life energy is completely subtle (cannot be detected physically), whereas light and electrical energy can be detected. Gravity is known only by its results. It is inferred and has never been detected directly. Could it be an intermediate form between gross material and subtle (life) energy?
4. Singularities: Gribbon defines singularities as a point in space time where the laws of physics completely break down. At this point, he says, the laws can evolve. This might correspond to a point at which natural laws are manifest by the Conscious Will.
Related articles on this site:
1. New Foundations of Knowledge
2. Rational Approach to Mysticism