The British philosopher Harold Joachim said that truth in its essential nature is that systematic coherence which is the character of a significant whole. Unlike the contemporary, neo-classical correspondence theory of truth which has at its core an ontological thesis: a belief is true if there exists a fact to which it corresponds and thereby only makes sense within the setting of a metaphysics that includes such facts, the coherence theory of Joachim needs no such conceptual crutches. Charles Sanders Peirce held a more pragmatic view of truth when he said that truth is the end of the inquiry. In the times of yore, the Indic line of thinking gave a preeminent position to the truth, with Satya constituting the essence of the Universe in Vedanta. Reality has hierarchies of self-evidence, each superposed in a higher level of abstraction. The truth of the Veda is a truth posited to be beyond the immanent and the emergent, with the premise that the reductionist paradigm is a byproduct of misunderstanding the interplay of the subsystems of a single whole. The Truth of the Vedas is regarded as the Truth transcending all relative truths. While that assessment and stance is for individuals to take for themselves, in this essay I highlight how the systematic pursuit of truth that is encouraged by the spiritual schools of Dharma has, at its core and its methods, a resonance with the pursuit of truth in contemporary science. The apparent conflict between these two traditions of thinking – the spiritual and the scientific, takes place when belief dominates over the spirit of inquiry in both: that of blind faith in the former and that of unnecessary skepticism that involves rejecting anything beyond current ways of thinking in the latter.
The truth of science is a byproduct of facts ascertained using empiricism and rationality. The element of repeatability in experiments of scientific facts is encapsulated in scientific laws of nature, up to experimentally permissible margins of error. Science relies on careful observation, discernment of what is observed, formulation of hypothesis via induction based on these observations, empirical testing of the deductions so formed and refinement or elimination of those propositions that do not agree with experimental findings. René Descartes’ Rationalism, Francis Bacon’s Inductivism and Hypothetico-deductivism are the primary strands of scientific thought. In the early twentieth century, a revolution took place in science: the emergence of quantum mechanics and relativity showed that reality was frame-dependent and observation-dependent in different regimes of energy and scales. The sense of absoluteness in the description of reality was summarily discarded. Einstein, who gave us relativity, was so uncomfortable with the probabilistic Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that he famously said: God does not play dice! The importance of empiricism is also highlighted in Dharmic schools of thought. Within Vedanta, Advaita epistemology stands out and is best described by the seminal text Vedānta-Paribhāsā of Dharmarāja Adhvarindra, wherein six means of valid knowledge are recognized: Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāna (inference), Śabda (verbal testimony), Upamāṇa (comparison), Arthapatti (presumption) and Abhāvapramāṇa (non-apprehension). These means of knowledge were directed towards the realization of the nature of reality at its most fundamental – the ‘ultimate reality’, if you will.
In the past, Dharmic spirituality has had extreme levels of nonchalance towards, and non-reliance on, conceptual constructs, thereby speaking of utter void when it came to rigid or pre-made ideas of what reality is at its most fundamental – something famously by the following verses of Nasadiya Sukta, the 129th hymn of the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda:
नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत्
Then even non-existence was not there, nor existence
There was no air then, nor the space beyond it
which describe the beginning of the Universe, and how all constructs, all concepts, all elements of the Universe dissolve into the great nothingness, which is neither existent nor non-existent! If we look at contemporary physics, we find a postulated point in the distant past when the fundamental forces were unified and arose from a singularity, in an act known in common parlance as the Big Bang. A point to note here is that not only are the laws of Physics posited to be very different to what they are, but extrapolating even further back leads us to a point when the laws of nature and spacetime themselves may not have been present! The great void we see in space today is actually not nothingness, with the quantum vacuum being a teeming sea of particles and anti-particles being created and annihilated. The whole premise of existence and non-existence in Physics is based on this substratum and on the description in terms of degrees of freedom and constructs that are hypothesized to have emerged from the singularity at the beginning of the Universe. All the diversity of entities and their associated behavioural rules, encapsulated in the laws of nature, also are emergent, in this framework. It is at that level of abstraction and indeterminacy that I see the Nasadiya Sukta start off at.
Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg speaks of the advantage of the scientific method being that we have ways of finding out we’re wrong about things by experiments, adding that this is a very cleansing experience. This dedication to finding what the truth really is, was once a hallmark of the Indic way of thinking. The expression नेति नेति (‘not this, not that’) in the Avadhuta Gita takes this to the extremes by calling all and sundry to not align with what is not the truth, including frameworks and ideas of what is divinity, theology, religion and faith. The Truth of the Veda is beyond all these, and the Dharmic fold asks the seeker of truth to do so without any false ideas of the truth. And given that all individuals have markedly distinct experiences and lives, the idea of the Truth that they form may be very different. And that is fine, as highlighted by the expression एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or that there is one Truth and many ways to speak of it. Even in modern physics, the manner in which a certain event or observation takes place determines what the reality will appear to be, from specific values of properties of entities in quantum experiments to whether an entity is found to be a wave or a particle, such as in delayed-choice experiments. The truth of these entities is that they are manifestations of more fundamental reality, such as quantum fields, strings in Superstring theory or loops in Loop Quantum Gravity. The next natural question is: can there be a more fundamental reality still? Using the principle of self-similarity in nature, I believe the ancient seers and philosophers of India tried to decentralize this search for truth, sans advanced experiments in the modern sense of the word. Whether that is entirely possible or not, and whether to believe their findings or not is another matter. What is important in this is that
The truly Dharmic and scientific ways of thinking unite in their impartial search for truth
It is in the quest of truth that the streams of science and spirituality unite and are inherently compatible. ॐ