Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Vedanta and Science: Metaphysics of Advaita against Scientific Knowledge


In common with most spiritual paths, the proponents of Advaita Vedanta also frequently consider modern science to be irrelevant to spiritual progress. Often it is also declared that science is contradictory to the teachings of Advaita and is a meaningless quest.

This antagonistic interpretation of modernscience and Advaita Vedanta is derived from the basic principles of Advaita.

Advaita has two fundamental tenets:

  1. The world is unreal
  2. Brahman at the base of the world is the only Reality.

Science is seen to be concerned only with the superficial level, the level of the world. Hence science is said to be irrelevant to the Advaitin, because knowledge of the world is unnecessary for spirituality. Some commentators again declare that science sees the world in terms of materiality and considers matter to be the only truth. But since in Advaita, it is Brahman, which is beyond matter and consciousness, which is the absolute truth, science and Advaita are considered contradictory.

Here we shall examine both these propositions, that science is contradictory to Advaita and/or science is irrelevant to the spiritual path of Advaita.

Is modern science contradictory to Advaita Vedanta?

Modern science is declared by many commentators on Advaita to be contradictory to the principles espoused by Advaita. Science is seen to consider the world around us as the only reality, and to confine its search for the truth to this material world. But Advaita declares the world to have only relative reality, and that the absolute truth lies beyond this world.

So are we to believe that science and Advaita are contradictory, and that if we believe in Advaita we must abandon all scientific principles?

But it is here that we see the great strength of Advaita logic, and to realize that not only does science not contradict Advaita but that it actually strengthens Advaita.

Because modern science in fact has come round to the view that the world has only relative reality.

The view that science and Advaita are contradictory began with the Newtonian view of science. It was then believed that the world is absolutely real. The world is composed of atoms at its root which have their own firm reality, and it exists in absolute time and space. The world is thus the only reality and the only truth, and we need not go further than this in our search for the ultimate Truth.

Such a Newtonian view of science is quite contradictory to Advaita Vedanta. But since then there has been a radical change in the scientific world view. The theory of relativity in respect of time and space and quantum physics in respect of the root of matter have completely changed how we understand the world.

In relativity, there is no more absolute time and space. We now know that time and space depends on the frame of the observer, if one observer is moving very fast with respect to the other, time appears to run slow for him or her. This also has the consequence that space also changes between observers, two observers would not agree on the length of an object. Similarly, the mass of objects also have different values for different observers. Thus there is no absolute time or space in present science. This also has the consequence that the law of causation is also relative, since two phenomena which may be seen as a sequence of cause and effect from one persepective would be seen as simultaneous from another. Denying the law of cause and effect is an important precept of Advaita as it shows the unreality of the world.

Quantum physics has brought us even closer to the Advaitic viewpoint. The search for the roots of the world goes deeper and deeper into unreality. The absolutely real atoms of the Newtonian world are now seen to be an illusion and their base is quantum particles. Quantum physics implies a paradigm change in physics, there is now no fixed reality to the ultimate building blocks. Physicists universally accept that there is no ontological absolute reality in quantum particles. A physicist of today would have no problems in accepting the tenets of Advaita that the world is not absolutely real.

In the field of consciousness studies also, whereas the earlier position was that consciousness is but an epiphenomenon or by product of matter, this is not accepted at present. The present position among researchers in consciousness is that of Functionalism, in which it is accepted that consciousness is not a product of matter but exists in a different dimension to matter, the information dimension, and matter only acts as a support, not as its causative factor. Hence the view of Advaita that consciousness exists in the Chit dimension matches quite well with modern thinking on consciousness.

Of course, science has not yet accepted the principle of Brahman as the absolute reality beyond this world. Science has yet to decide whether there is an absolute reality beyond this unreal world or not, and this is a question for the future which will be have to be decided at one point.

But the first tenet, of the unreality of the world, is now firmly established in modern science. This can be considered a great victory for Advaita philosophy. Advaitists can use scientific arguments to support the basic tenet of the unreality of the world. The present views of science would contradict Dualism and Qualified Monism, which say that the world is real. But it supports Advaita in its first tenet, that the world is unreal.

At this point, to say that science contradicts Advaita would be a great mistake and this stems from a misunderstanding of science. In fact the very opposite is true, and we can hope that with further progress, modern science will come closer and closer to Advaita philosophy.

Is science irrelevant to the practice of Advaita Vedanta?

A second point that arises is whether science has any relevance to the Advaitin in his or her spiritual quest.

It is said that science deals only with the objective world, its goal is to explore the outside world and not the inner. But all spirituality deals with the inner aspect, to know who we really are. Science dealing with the relative world, can never hope to approach close to Brahman. Hence science has no relevance for Advaita in its practice and is totally irrelevant.

But this is not true because science is vital for the Advaitin to form the correct intellectual conception of the world or Vidya.

Vidya is the intellectual conception of the world, the world as we understand it with our minds. Avidya is an incorrect conception.

Vidya is very important to the Advaitin. The Upanishads declare, First hear, then think, then act. (‘The Self, my dear Maitreyi, should be realised – should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon’ – Br. Up 2.4.5). Ramakrishna Paramahamsa also said that we should first have Vidya and use it like a thorn to pluck out the thorn of Avidya that is stuck in our flesh.

This is where the role of science comes in. Modern science can help in forming the correct conception or Vidya. It can help us to understand the world better. As science comes closer to the Advaitic conception of unreality of the world, modern science can in fact help us in forming Vidya through its principles.

But this is as far as science can lead us. Ultimately, Vidya too has to be left behind as the Yogi progresses in his or her path. Reaching the correct conception of the world is but a milestone on the Advaitic path of Yoga. After forming Vidya, both Vidya and Avidya must be left behind as the Yogi strives for the mystical experience of Oneness with the Absolute.

The path of science and Yoga are the same, but the goals are different. The goal of science is only to reach a correct intellectual conception of the world. This is what interests science and this is where the effort is concentrated. For the Advaitin though, this is only a milestone on the path and he or she does not tarry much on this, going on further to the ultimate goal.

The scientist is guided by the mind, not by the heart. She seeks only to know the world intellectually and does not seek anything more. The call to leave aside both Vidya and Avidya is only for those who feel this tug in the heart to ‘merge‘ with the truth and not just ‘know‘ it. For all that, we cannot say that the path of science is inferior or incomplete. Science has made tremendous achievements like allaying sickness and hunger, in technological strides, etc. These achievements cannot be denied and we must all acknowledge our deep debt to the scientists for their contribution in our lives.

Science can teach the Advaitin how to use logic and reason to understand the world. In return, Advaita can teach the scientist that after knowing the world with the mind, further progress is still possible and this is through the heart, to see the Absolute within and become one with it.

This spiritual goal is the highest goal for the Advaitin, and science is an accessory, but a very important one, towards achieving this culmination.

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* To read more on Advaita Vedanta and Yoga and its harmony with modern science and reason, you can go through my book on Amazon:

Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga

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