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Superstition, science, and faith: beyond the duality of the subject and the object || IIT Kanpur (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
आचार्य प्रशांत
18 मिनट
77 बार पढ़ा गया

Questioner: In any scientific experiment there is a subject and an object, but usually the subject is biased due to his conditioning to some extent. We sometimes see scientific studies contradicting each other as they are reported by scientists having different conditionings. Nevertheless, the general belief is that science is objective and this leads to scientists becoming self-righteous, arrogant, judgmental, and sometimes even insane. My question is, is there anything that is objective, universal, and always trustworthy?

Acharya Prashant: The relationship between the subject and the object needs to be understood. Usually, the subject operates in its lowest state, and that lowest state of the subject or of the consciousness of the subject you could call as belief or superstition. What happens in this state? The subject sees an object, and the subject certifies that the object definitely, absolutely does exist because the subject is seeing it. In other words, the subject is taking his own perception as absolute. The subject is saying, “I am seeing that object and that object exists, and that is absolutely certain because I am seeing the object.”

Things don’t stop here. The subject goes on to say that whatever the subject perceives about the object, whatever the subject even feels or imagines about the object, is bound to be true, and is therefore not available to the investigation. This is the lowest state of the relationship between the subject and the object. This relationship is called consciousness. This is the lowest state of consciousness. You are looking at an object, and looking at that object, you get certain ideas about that object—or those ideas about that object have come to you from tradition, or stuff that you have read from somewhere, or stuff that you have somehow cooked up or concocted—and whatsoever is your idea regarding the object, you are placing absolute certainty in it. You are saying, “There is no need to inquire. There is no need to experiment. The thing is this way because I feel it is this way.”

So, let’s say you are looking at water. The first thing that you are saying is, “Water is. Water exists. And why does water exist? Because I experience it, because my eyes can see the water, my skin can touch the water, my tongue can taste the water.” So, water is. So far so good, fine. Let’s accept that water is, because your senses perceive and experience it.

But you don’t stop at this. In the lowest state of consciousness, you go on to say many a thing about water that is purely fanciful. For example, you might say that water comes from fire; fire, when it cools down or condenses in some way, leads to water. Or you might say that fire and water are twin brothers coming from a common mother called the earth. And you might narrate an elaborate story about the genesis of these two twins and how they got separated later on in their evolution and such things; so many things can be there. And you start placing great confidence in these stories. These are your own stories, but you start taking them as the absolute truth.

So, you are saying water exists, and you are saying so many other things about water. And you do not want to enquire, explore, experiment, investigate—these words are anathema. You don’t want to really question your belief. You might say that water from one particular place is more sacred than water from another place. You might want to say that if there is rain on a particular day, then the water falling from the skies has medicinal properties. Or you might want to say that if a holy man touches water, then that water gets consecrated and the water can then be used to heal patients of all sorts. And you can have all these things. This is the lowest state of consciousness. Unfortunately, mostly all of us dwell most of the time in this state.

Higher than this is the scientific state of consciousness. How is the scientific state of consciousness different from the believing or superstitious state of consciousness? First of all, we will see how the scientific state is a bit similar to the superstitious state, because that is what you have asserted in your question. You have said science and superstition are much the same because in both of them the subject is biased and conditioned. So, we will first look at the similarity.

The similarity is that even in the scientific state, the subject unconditionally and absolutely agrees to the existence of the object. The subject, who is the scientist here, says, “Water is visible, therefore water is.” And this was something the observer or the subject in the lowest state too was averring, was he not? He was saying, “Water is visible, so water indeed does exist.” The scientist till this point agrees with the superstitious mind. The scientist too agrees that water is perceptible to the senses, therefore water exists.

So, the scientist too takes sensual perception or sensual experience as an absolute. The scientist is saying, “The world exists, the world indeed does exist. Why? Because I experience the world.” And when we say the world exists, that includes water, trees, suns, moons, stars, atoms, everything. “Because I experience matter, so matter exists.” In other words, the scientist is saying that “I am absolute, and therefore whatsoever I perceive is absolute.”

In believing the absoluteness of the perceived object, science is in fact lending credence to the absoluteness of the subject. “The water exists because I am ratifying that water exists. And if I am ratifying with my eyes, with my mind that water exists, water has to exist.” In other words, this is not so much of a certainty in the existence of water as it is certainty in the absolute infallibility of sensual experience. “I am experiencing water, so water has to be there.”

But beyond this point science does not allow the subject to have a free run. Beyond this point, science will not admit the fancies of the subject. So, water exists. But if you will say, “Well, you know, water has a lot of nitrogen in it,” then science will just not take the assertion of the subject on face value. Science will say, “Fine, you are claiming that water has a lot of carbon or nitrogen in it. We will check, we will experiment.”

Now, here science gains superiority on superstition, because the superstitious mind is not only saying that water exists but also a lot of other things about the existence of water. It is those other things that the scientific mind is not at all willing to admit. The scientific mind, now, relies purely on experimentation. Once it has admitted that water exists, now it would rely on experimentation. It would say, “What I am producing as a result must be verifiable by another person. It must be falsifiable.” So, there is honesty and authenticity in the scientific method compared to the method of the superstitious mind or consciousness.

So, you see, there is a similarity between the scientific mind and the superstitious mind. What is the similarity? The similarity is that they both posit faith in the existence of matter, in the existence of the object. To that extent they are similar. Yet there is a great dissimilarity also. The great dissimilarity is that the superstitious mind will say, “Well, water has memory” or “Water has such property, this feature, that attribute.” A lot of other things can be said about water, no? Who can stop imagination from running wild? You can say anything and you can say anything, especially if what you are saying is never going to be checked or verified. In science such vile and unfounded claims are not allowed. They are not even disallowed, they are just checked. You can claim anything, fine, but if you claim something, it will be checked, it will be passed through a grueling process of authentication. That is the scientific way. So, in that sense science differs greatly from superstition.

Then comes something that is higher than science, and that is faith. Now, what is this state of consciousness called faith? You see, in both superstition and science, the subject has been taken as an absolute; it has been assumed that the subject indeed is. And who is assuming this? Obviously, the subject himself. So, the subject is taking himself as the certainty, as an absolute, and therefore, as the truth. “I am, and we will not question this. We won’t investigate this.”

So, the subject is the center of the consciousness of both the believing mind and the scientific mind. The faithful mind has no such center. When the subject is the center, then it is that center that is commonly called as the ego. So, superstition and science both operate from an inner place called the ego. That however, I am repeating, does not mean that science and superstition are the same. Science is hugely superior to superstition, even though science holds a blind belief in the existence of the subject. That is one thing that science never bothers to question, and therefore there are great problems with the scientific mindset.

In fact, a lot of problems that the world is facing today are because the scientific method does not include turning inwards. The scientific method questions all objects, all matter, the entire universe quite rigorously, but the scientific method just does not question the observer or the subject or the ego. The scientific method says, “If I am experiencing something, that is the final proof of its existence.”

However, the higher state of consciousness, faith, looks at the subject as well and says, “How am I so sure that I am? Should I not look at myself first?” The more faith looks at itself, the more it finds itself unreliable. And if something is unreliable, if something has been assembled from bits and pieces from here and there, how can it be absolute? Therefore, the higher state of consciousness refuses to take the subject as an absolute. It says, “No, the subject is not absolute. There has to be something higher than the subject because this subject is all conditioned,” as you are saying in your question.

The subject is so very conditioned. The subject has no authenticity, nothing original about itself. Everything about the subject is coming from here and there. The subject looks at the object, the object influences the subject. Some part of the subject’s consciousness comes from its genetic origins, some part comes from the experiences it has had during its lifetime. How can this kind of an assembled subject be called an absolute?

Therefore, faith starts looking for something that is higher than the subject. To begin with, that which is questioning the subject is higher than the subject, and that is commonsensical. The investigating agency has to be higher than the investigated object. But then, the agency that is questioning the subject is itself some layer of the subject, so even that layer would be contaminated by conditioning and even that layer has to be transcended. So, you move to the next layer, and then to the next layer, and so on. Finally, you place absolute trust only in something that is not at all conditioned or contaminated or subject to be influenced by anything.

The Absolute has to be something that is not a product of conditioning or physical processes, space or time. That is faith, faith that refuses to take the person, his mind, his ego, his concepts with any seriousness. Faith says, “Forget about what you are saying or claiming, even the one making the claim is not worthy of any trust. How do I trust your claims when even you cannot be trusted? You are saying so many things about water—how do I trust those things that you are saying about water when even you are surely not trustworthy?”

So, you see, the believing mind lives in stories, imaginations. The scientific mind dismisses all stories, all imaginations but one. That is the limit of science. Science does not admit any subjective stories, any imaginations, any fancies, but one story sneaks in through the iron gate of science. That iron gate is meant to defend against all subjective bias, but still one fundamental bias manages to sneak in. What is that one fundamental bias? “The world does exist.” That story science never bothers to question. And why does science easily admit that the world does exist? Because the one making the claim, it is believed, does exist.

So, out of the hundred things science questions ninety-nine. What is that one thing that science does not question? The self. And then comes the higher state of consciousness in which everything is questioned and dismissed. Even the questioner is then questioned and dismissed. Finally, there is nobody left to question anything or dismiss anything, then there is just the Absolute, and that is faith.

Faith, therefore, sits over this entire game of duality, dualistic consciousness involving the subject and the object, looks at it and knows fully well that it is just a game. It is a game in which everything is relative to something else. Therefore, nothing is fully trustworthy here. Faith is not about placing your trust in something special called the Absolute. Faith is, first of all, about knowing that false hope is simply stupidity. And if you will place your hope in anything in this world or anybody in this world, including yourself, then you will be deceived, let down. That is faith.

So, faith is, first of all, about not placing unrealistic hopes on anything in this phenomenal world. Faith is fundamentally not positive. Faith cannot have an object to depend on. How can faith depend on an object when faith has dismissed even the subject? Therefore, you can have belief in some object, you can trust some object. But if you say you have faith on an object, then you do not know faith.

Faith is objectless. Faith is subjectless.

What is faith, then? Faith is something that you just cannot define because whatsoever you define would be coming from your own bias, your own limited set of experiences. Any attempt at providing a definition would merely be an attempt at asserting the existence of the subject providing the definition. Faith has no fondness towards the subject called ’you’ or the ‘self’ or the ‘ego’.

Next you ask, “Is there anything that is objective, universal, and always trustworthy?” You see, if you say that there is something that is objective, then you have to realize that all objects depend on the subject called ‘you’ for their very existence. If you are not there, who is there to certify or verify that any object indeed does exist? So, if you will ask for something that is objective, you will have to create a subject. Even when we say with respect to a thing that it is objective, all that you are saying is that the various subjects that you know of agree to a great extent regarding that particular thing you are calling as objective. But still, all of those subjects—and only those subjects—are there to ascertain the existence of that thing, right? How can it then be fully independent of the subject?

Let me explain. Even if you say something is objective, what you are probably trying to say is that that particular thing does not depend on the bias of the subject, right? When you say something is objective, you are asserting that the thing is independent of the bias of the subject. Now, how can that thing be independent of the subject when the very existence of any object is dependent on the subject? So, there is nothing absolutely objective possible at all.

Truth is, therefore, not objective. Facts can be objective. A lot of subjects agree with respect to one thing, and you can call that as an objective fact because the fact is standing irrespective of the change in the subject. So, you are entitled to call it objective. But still, it is not the Truth.

Similarly, ‘universal’. You are saying, “Is there anything that is universal?” Well yes, there are things that are universal. But who perceives the universe? The person. Therefore, whatsoever is universal is actually, and firstly, personal. Therefore, the Truth is neither objective nor universal. It is a great fallacy to look for an objective truth or a universal truth. When the universe itself is a dualistic projection of the person, how can there be a universal truth? But yes, you can have universal facts, again.

Then you are saying, “Is there anything that is always trustworthy?” If there is something trustworthy, then there would be somebody placing trust in that trustworthy thing. Now, how trustworthy is the one trusting the trustworthy thing? If there is someone trusting something that you are calling as trustworthy, then who is the agency certifying that object, that perceived object to be trustworthy? The one who is placing trust in that thing. Now, who is placing trust in the trustworthy thing? You and me. And how trustworthy are we? When we are not trustworthy, how can our claims about somebody else’s trustworthiness be trustworthy? Therefore, if you will look for something trustworthy, you will again be let down.

Do not look for Truth with such conditions or in such ways. Do not look for Truth in objectivity. Do not look for Truth in universality. Do not look for Truth as something that is always trustworthy.

What to do, then? See what is not trustworthy. See where everything in the universe comes from. See what provides definition to everything. And when you are seeing these things and admitting the results of your investigation, do not be in a hurry, do not be desperate to come to a conclusion. Do not say, “Okay, I have found out that those fourteen things are not reliable, so where is that fifteenth thing that is reliable?” No, live with what you are seeing.

When you can live with the ephemeral nature of this world, with the untrustworthiness of this world and yourself without feeling uncomfortable, then you know you have faith. Faith is not about finding an anchor to live by or to stand by. Faith is about seeing that anything that you use as an anchor is itself anchorless. Having seen this, if you can still smile, then there is faith.

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