Introduction to Gnosis and Sciencis
Dialogues between science and religion have ranged from friendly exchanges with mutual respect to unhappy confrontations bordering on mutual contempt. The latter have generally been between scholars: some scientifically inclined thinkers on the one hand and some religiously committed theologians on the other. Millions of words are spoken and written on either side, and there seems to be no end in sight for a healthy bridge that would satisfy both extremes.
However, there are millions, perhaps billions, of alert and happy human beings, no less intelligent and decent than those loud spokespersons for the confrontational postures. They are both prayerful and scientific as and when the occasion warrants. They have no bitter animosity against the religion they profess; nor do they fear a science that, in certain contexts, seems to paint humanity in crass materialistic terms. There are scientists who are also deeply religious and religious people who are scientifically-minded too. This may seem to be a paradox.
One way of resolving this paradox could be by recognizing that carefully and systematically acquired knowledge about the physical world (science) ought to be distinguished from the deeper and uplifting dimensions of the human experience. There is more to life than understanding and explanation, between logically constructed and mathematically sophisticated theories on the one hand, and deeply felt and holistically grasped truths on the other. Truth, as normally claimed, is only something that is ontologically factual. But it must include poetic reactions to the experienced world and reflective interpretations of the larger scheme of things. These may not always be amenable to rigorous and cutting analyses. The meaningful aspects of life call for lofty poetry and sublime music, and these are even more relevant than carefully gathered data and meticulously measured numbers displayed as neat charts and graphs. Modifying an old quip, science interprets signs, religion what is signified. What the microscope is to the scientist, poetry is to the visionary: one enables us to see entities in the physical world that are invisible to normal vision; the other enables us to become aware of aspects of the human condition that are not apparent in everyday life.
The bifurcation of our interpretations of the world into what can be cerebrally comprehended and that which can only be the spiritually apprehended is ancient in human reflection. In many religious traditions one makes this distinction explicitly. In a rough way, it is like the distinction between technical theoretical physics which can be grasped only through a rigorous study of higher mathematics, and descriptive physics which does not require any esoteric initiation.
The Mundaka Upanishad (I.4) says “dve vidye veditavye iti ha sma yad brahmavido vadanti, par‚ caiv‚parˆca: Two kinds of knowledge are to be known … : the par‚ (higher) and the apar‚ (lower).” What is called knowledge of the lower category corresponds to scientific knowledge, while the higher cannot be intellectually understood. It is eternal, omnipresent, and super-subtle.
In the Western tradition, Gnosticism has its roots in mysticism and esoteric practices through which the human soul can pierce through the opaque walls between us and the realm of the Divine. The word Gnosticism is derived from the Greek for knowledge: gnosis. The Latin word for knowledge, scientia, gave us the word science. Both claim to reveal knowledge.
From religious perspectives higher experiential knowledge comes to practitioners from a supernatural source. It is about God and the Divine Realm, about transcendence, about the esoteric origins according to which the world is the result of a Creation by or some corruption of the Divine. Such results are not compatible with the scientific interpretations of the natural world. Efforts to reconcile the two will always be fruitless.
If sciencis refers to what is gained through the methodology of modern science, then we are essentially dealing with sciencis and gnosis. It is on these that I will be reflecting in this series.