Krishnamurti and the scientific temper

An article by Prof. P. Krishna

In teaching science, it is more important to help students to understand the scientific approach to life and develop a scientific temper than it is to impart scientific knowledge or train them in specific scientific techniques. While scientific knowledge and techniques may be useful to them in their career, the scientific approach to life has much wider ramifications as it is applicable to all aspects of life - social, economic, political and even the religious. Krishnamurti's approach to religious questions has many parallels with the scientific approach to truth. Both posit reality as the unknown and rely strongly on observation and inquiry as the means of discovery. Both deny the acceptance of authority or belief and recommend experimentation and investigation. Krishnamurti says that the answer does not lie outside the question; it is to be found in investigating and unfolding the problem itself. The scientist would agree because he is also trying to discover the order that manifests in Nature, not create it.

Technology and the applications of science, however useful they may be, are not the real purpose of the scientific quest. Its real purpose is to discover the laws of Nature and unravel the great mystery of the origin and operation of the universe in which we live. Similarly, the institutionalised religions have been historical by-products of the religious quest, not its aim. The true aim of the religious quest is to come upon a certain order in one's consciousness through a direct perception of the truth, which Krishnamurti calls an insight. There is thus only one truly religious mind - the mind that has come upon harmony, love and compassion. There is no such thing as the Buddhist mind, the Hindu mind, the Christian mind or the Islamic mind. To divide the religious mind in this manner is as absurd as talking about Indian science as separate from American science or African science. There is no such thing - there is only one science. Both scientific and religious truths are universal and cannot be different for different people.

The real purpose (of science) is to discover the laws of nature ..... The true aim of the religious quest is to come upon a certain order in our consciousness.

The scientist looks at the external world of phenomena and asks questions like: why is the sky blue? why does the wind blow? why does the seed grow into a tree? why do eclipses occur? why are there so many different species of life? He tries to discover the causes of whatever he observes happening in this world of ours. His experience is that nothing happens without a cause and the same cause produces the same effect. When there are multiple causes operating simultaneously it is a complex system and he finds it difficult to predict the resultant behaviour. Thus the behaviour of the weather may be unpredictable because there are too many variables affecting the system, but it does not contradict the fundamental laws of cause and effect. Simple systems are those where only a few causes operate and scientists are very successful at predicting the behaviour of such systems - for instance, the behaviour of projectiles or spacecraft operating under a single gravitational field or a beam of white light passing through a prism.

Similarly, there is a cause for all disorder in our consciousness like violence, anger, jealousy or fear. So long as the cause exists the effect must occur. Usually there are multiple causes and the response from our consciousness is a complicated process, difficult to understand or see clearly. The disorder can end only when the causes are seen dearly and eliminated. This requires more than knowledge; it requires a deep insight into the functioning of our consciousness. That insight can only come through passive awareness, observation and experimentation. These are also the cornerstones of any scientific investigation. The scientist conducts experiments in the laboratory and uses microscopes and other instruments to help his senses observe reality. He lays great importance on the accuracy of his observations and ensures that the lenses of his microscopes are clean and free from aberrations so that he sees reality exactly as it is. In Krishnamurti's approach to self-knowledge the entire world is the laboratory, all relationships are experiments in which we can clearly observe ourselves as we are, provided the mind does not distort the observation by projecting its own desires, opinions and cultural conditioning. The mind is the instrument of observation and needs to be free of its conditioning if it is to observe what is without distortion. Learning takes place through the passive awareness of what is.

Doubt and inquiry as essential elements of a religious mind............

Non-acceptance of authority is another important ingredient of the scientific temper. A statement is not regarded as true just because a great scientist has stated it; it needs to be investigated, tested and rediscovered several times by different investigators. This is a recognition of the fact that even the greatest of minds can be mistaken in some area. Science does not recognise hierarchy in the pursuit of what is true. A young student can disprove what a great senior scientist may have formulated. No truth is held to be so sacrosanct as to be beyond question or doubt. Krishnamurti advocates a similar approach to religious and psychological questions when he denies the role of the Guru and advocates doubt and inquiry as essential elements of a religious mind. Indeed he is very willing to investigate a question afresh without allowing the conclusions of the past to colour the inquiry. To him a religious mind is one that lives with questions and not with conclusions, so that it is continually observing and learning. Feynman, a great scientist of this century, advocates essentially the same approach when he states in his essay on the value of science, "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty - some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain". Krishnamurti's approach to religious questions is thus very close to a scientific approach. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that the kind of objective experimentation which can be done to settle scientific questions or disputes is not possible in the field of self-knowledge. When one is studying a mass falling under the earth's gravity, the observer is separate from the observed and it is relatively easy to be objective in one's measurements and observations. But when one is observing oneself, the observer is not separate from the observed and there is a strong interaction between the two which makes the observation highly subjective. This does not mean, however, that the observation is not valid but that it is more difficult and should be doubted all the more. Consider a man trying to observe how he falls asleep. As he goes to sleep his powers of observation fade and it is well nigh impossible for him to discover how exactly he falls asleep!

The truth becomes real ... only when It Is perceived directly..

Another important difference between the religious inquiry advocated by Krishnamurti and scientific inquiry is in the role of knowledge. A scientist is able to study and learn about the work of previous scientists and then build on top of it through his own experiments and analysis. Thus scientific progress and scientific knowledge are cumulative processes. It is not so with the religious inquiry. The knowledge of all that the Buddha had said does not bring our consciousness closer to that of the Buddha. It only adds to our memory unless we can, through our own investigations, rediscover the truth of which the Buddha spoke. Knowledge, in this field, has only the value of creating a question in our mind. It cannot provide the answer. We have to rediscover the truth of it for ourselves. Thus Krishnamurti states that the answer is not separate from the question; it is to be found in the exploration of the question itself. The idea of a truth is not the truth itself, and intellectual understanding is not the realisation of that truth. The truth becomes real to the consciousness only when it is perceived directly and not through a process of ideation. This direct perception of the truth is what he calls an insight. In a sense, the scientist also recognises the difference between ideas and understanding things through direct perception. This is why a science student is asked to do years of laboratory work to verify and rediscover what he is taught in the class.

This means that if we plot knowledge (or memory) along the horizontal x-axis, time along the horizontal y-axis and wisdom along the vertical z-axis, all our knowledge and intellectual processes move our consciousness only within a horizontal plane. The consciousness moves in the vertical direction only when it has a direct perception of the truth of something. That insight is like a quantum process-it occurs in time but not gradually and not because of time. It occurs in a flash and moves the consciousness to a higher level of clarity. Perhaps this is what Krishnamurti means when he says that there is no psychological evolution, that wisdom does not increase gradually like knowledge or experience. If it did, all old people would be wise since they are more experienced! But that is not true. One cannot come upon wisdom the way one climbs up a hill, moving slowly along a spiral path.

Science deals with the measurable; religion with the immeasurable.

Scientific progress also relies on a deep insight whenever something totally new is discovered. But after the initial discovery has been made, the truth of it can be communicated to others through a logical intellectual process. A student of the theory of relativity does not necessarily have the insight into the nature of space, time, mass and energy which Einstein had; but he is able to use the equations and they work. This is not possible with religious truths. If a man has realised for himself that he is one with Nature, his words do not create that realisation in others who hear him. There is no formula, no fixed path to come upon that realisation. It is somewhat like trying to explain what colour is, to a man who has been blind since birth. One can only eliminate his blindness so he can see for himself.

Science deals with the measurable and thought can measure, record and communicate its findings; but religion deals with the immeasurable and thought cannot capture the immeasurable; it can only be sensed when thought is silent. So while the scientific temper is important also for the religious quest, one must be aware of its limitations in this field. Thought and reason are like the pole of a pole-vaulter. Man can use the pole to lift himself but he must know when to discard the pole, otherwise he cannot get to the other side.
(From the Journal of the Krishnamurti Schools, No.1)