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Revealing fact and reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in India

Joseph Satish V

30 March, 2017

On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) announced that the Advanced LIGO detectors in the USA had directly observed gravitational waves (GW) on 14 September 2015. Gravitational waves (the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916) are ripples in space-time created by large cosmic events such as the merger of two massive black holes.  The detection is significant for it strengthens astronomers’ ability to observe some of the earliest cosmic processes - including events that followed the Big Bang. It was only expected therefore, that the age-old question of the tumultuous relationship between science and religion entered the picture yet again.

The journal publication that announced the GW detection had 35 authors from India. Apart from nationalistic pride, the GW detection also raised interesting questions for STS scholars, considering that India is the birthplace of many religious and scientific traditions. 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. The event was jointly organized by the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (IISR), Delhi and the Centre for Science and Religion Studies of Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), Pune.

Dr Sanjeev Dhurandhar, who led the Indian effort in filtering and analyzing the 2015 GW signals, shared how decades of patient observation led to the detection. Dr. Job Kozhamthadam SJ, the symposium convener and a Jesuit priest (standing with mic in picture below), pointed out that a scientific discovery of this scale becomes a statement of religious faith (e.g. “God is Almighty”) for a religious person.

While the GW detection opens up new possibilities in astronomy, Dr Noel D'Costa shared that we only know as little as 4.9% of what constitutes the universe – the rest is all dark matter and dark energy. This called for an engagement with what constitutes "knowing". One way of pursuing such discoveries, Dr Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ suggested, was to follow Freeman Dyson’s advice that: “Science and religion are two windows... to understand the big universe outside... both are worthy of respect”. Dr. Vincent Braganza SJ added that when religion is re-calibrated in the vocabulary of science, it could add value to interdisciplinary subjects such as neurobiology. Dr Frank and Dr Geraldine Edith Mikes suggested that the strength of science is in its ability to correct and improve itself. Can religions also develop this capacity, they asked, for they believed that cosmological discoveries could enrich religious creeds.

Dr. Gabriele Gionti SJ emphasized that the GW detection can help reconstruct the chronological beginnings of the universe but not “Creation” since creation is a theological construct. In an effort to resolve such dilemmas, Dr. Philippe Quentin proposed “science parables”: he illustrated a model of “eternity” using the theology of Boethius and Einstein's ideas of "simultaneity".

Dr. John Selvamani shared that both science and religion seem to serve only utilitarian ends today, not the larger questions about life or human existence, even in the East. However, the alleged dichotomy between science and religion is not dominant in the East; for example, the Taiwanese health agencies offer insurance cover both to western as well as traditional forms of medicine. Dr. Hardev Singh Virk shared that the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, does not place any restraints on the methods used to save humanity from spiritual and social destruction. Hence science as a salvific method is well within the scriptural mandate, he said. Similarly, Dr. Kishore Marathe and Dr. SG Mirajgaonkar pointed out that the Hindu scriptures, especially the Advaita Vedanta, encouraged the pursuit of knowledge in the service of humans. They submitted that Indian religious traditions do not place any moral restrictions on science. Dr. M Arif 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 Indian religions today have consciously replaced some of their age-old practices and have started "going green" in their rituals and religious activities.

Dr. Binoy Pichalakkattu, considered GW as an "extra-scientific reality" that were proven using empirically verifiable models. He wondered if similar models could be used to verify the existence of "meta-scientific realities" like love and happiness. Similarly, Dr. Merhra Shrikhande believed that the paranormal experiences of patients on their death bed could also be researched, without contradicting religious belief as well as medical science.

Prof. Dhruv Raina suggested a re-framing of questions pertaining to the relationship between science and religion as these two cultures share more in common than we generally accept. He added that we have now reached the era of a "Grand Reversal" wherein religion now seeks legitimacy from science. Understanding this "scientification of society" requires that we re-think the binaries of science and religion, he said. Dr. Stephen Jeyard pointed out that theories are not always the truest descriptions of reality though they may represent reality in an exact manner. He advised caution against overdoing the metaphor of unraveling the "marvels of the universe". Science is indeed a powerful tool but not all-powerful, he said.

Scientific discoveries, big or small, can have different meanings for different people. Unlike centuries in the past, theologians and the faithful today do not see scientific breakthroughs as a threat to their belief. But science generally seems to lead the way today and religion tows behind, meekly even. The symposium raised several questions: do scientific discoveries really help to deepen religious beliefs? Do these “marvellous” discoveries offer any spiritual solace at the personal level? And what do these discoveries signify for the collective strength of the scientific community?

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 studies, very much related to the entanglements between beliefs and truths shaping scientific knowledge(s).

Joseph Satish V is a graduate student in STS studies at the University of Hyderabad, India. He blogs on issues related to the science and society at A Brave New Science

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Reports and commentary from meetings, workshops, and seminars of interest to the STS community, with images and other media.