About this blog

I hope to offer some of the ideas of Vaishnava Vedanta which have particular application in revealing the bigger picture of life and the universe as well as many of the simple things of life.

Embryology and Scientific Spirituality

Science meets PhilosophyPosted by Akhandadhi das Sun, October 18, 2015 21:24:34

BBC Radio Wales – Weekend Word

3rd October 2003

Families and the law are never a happy mix and this week, we’ve witnessed a legal decision possibly ending the chances of two women enjoying motherhood. Natalie Evans and Lorraine Hadley have been told by the High Court that the embryos that were fertilised from their eggs and the sperm of their respective ex-partners must be destroyed on the basis that their former partners no longer wish to become the father of the children.

Even if you disagree with the ruling, it is not the judge nor the court at fault. UK law is clear that both partners must give consent for every stage of the storage and use of embryos, including before an embryo is implanted in the mother.

It may seem at odds with “normal conception” where the decision to fertilise one’s partner is essentially a one-time decision, but the IVF process, as these two ladies discovered, can be fraught with complex issues. Modern medicine, particularly embryology, offers new opportunities but also raises new moral quandaries. Often, that leads people to question the science of IVF as being immoral, dangerous or evil.

But, what is really being exposed is that society does not have a clear moral framework underpinned with scientifically-sound philosophy. Nor do we have a science that is broad enough to embrace all the phenomena of the natural world.

We are very cautious about pronouncing the point of death, but, as yet, there is no consensus on what is the starting-point of life. Science still has no coherent explanation of why a single cell divides into two, four, eight - all the same - and why these cells then decide to be different, becoming muscle, blood, skin, brain, liver and so on, forming specialised organs which work with other organs in an amazingly co-ordinated system – the body.

The Hindu view is that this manipulation of matter is made possible by the presence of something that, itself, must be different from matter – spirit - for want of a better word. Using “spirit” to explain natural phenomena is perfectly rational, if it provides the only logical explanation and also holds the potential for research – which it does on both counts.

If this scientific and spiritual model was adopted, we would then conclude that every embryo holds the essence of life and should be treated as sacred or, at least, deserving of its own rights. Maybe then, when our courts and society face difficulties from medical and scientific advances, the judgements would be based on the welfare and future of these tiny persons.

© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Weekend Word” on BBC Radio Wales.

Computer consciousness

Science meets PhilosophyPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, October 08, 2015 21:56:33

BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day

8th May 2000

While Sunday’s Grand Prix in Spain demonstrated the co-ordination of man and machine, a contest in Holland is squaring up man against machine – and not without some protest….from the humans. For the first time in a national chess championship, a computer has been allowed to take part.

Fritz, a chess software programme, is the favourite to win in a strong field including even the man who recently defeated world champion, Garry Kasparov.

However, although the computer may gain the title of Dutch champion should it win, it won’t be entitled to any prize-money. A more interesting question is whether it will derive any personal satisfaction from the victory. While emotions amongst its opponents run high, will Fritz feel anything other than the electricity coursing through its circuit boards?

This, of course, is one of the big questions in philosophy. What is this thing we call consciousness? In my youth, I considered this so important to address, that I gave up architecture at university for ten years of study and contemplation as a monk in a Hindu ashram. I was particularly intrigued by the statement “aham brahmasmi – I am spirit, I am not this body.”

The sages of ancient India were never troubled by computers, but they did try to analyse what was happening within the human head. Even thousands of years ago, their deliberations led them to conclude that, the body, despite its complexity, was just a machine made of matter and incapable of conscious awareness. They felt that something else was needed to explain how we are able to experience the thoughts and emotions going on inside us.

If they had had access to computers and other electronic goods, they might have been able to extend the analogy. For instance, video cameras and computers perform similar actions to the eyes and brain by converting light images into electrical patterns. The Hindu thesis is that this is simply a mechanistic process and that there is no actual awareness of the image either in the computer or in the brain.

It’s only when these electrical patterns are re-converted into pictures and shown on a screen, that they can then be enjoyed as emotional experiences by a separate live observer.

So, who is the live observer of the actions of our body or the contents of our mind? The Bhagavad-gita suggests that, hidden inside the material body, there must be a tiny spark of an energy so different to matter that it is known as spirit. And that discovering this spark of spirit could be the key to understanding a lot more about who we really are.

© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.

Walking with dinosaurs

Science meets PhilosophyPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, October 08, 2015 01:03:08

BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day

6th October 1999

Good morning. As a “dinophile” since childhood, it was a delight to watch my favourite monsters in action in the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” on Monday evening.

The narrative of this documentary reminded me of the old couplet:- “We both read the Bible day and night, while you read black and I read white.” This phenomenon is not confined to religious study, it also applies to the interpretation of archaeological evidence.

There is an astonishing correspondence in the descriptions of universal time and planetary measurements in both ancient Hindu scriptures and modern scientific calculations. But, the conclusions they reach are very different.

There’s been life on earth, says Hinduism’s oldest texts, for nearly two billion years and these form a hierarchy from simple-celled creatures, through aquatics, reptiles, mammals to humans. They acknowledge how a species can develop from improvements in habitat and feeding. Natural selection is hinted at in a Puranic phrase – jivo jivasya hi jivanam –the weak are food for the strong. But, although, it is clear that nature will favour the fittest, that doesn’t lead the Puranas to deduce that one species actually changes into another.

Neither, is it suggested by the fossil record. Our diggings have unearthed only fully-formed species, often appearing and disappearing suddenly in the geological strata, or else lingering on, unchanged, to the present day. So, instead of dubious speculations about possible dinosaur evolution, it would be more honest just to state what we know for certain – that at some period in history, a creature flourished, but later on, another type became the dominant population.

I generally enjoy nature documentaries and Walking with Dinosaurs was no exception. They reveal intricately complex animals with organs and biological processes that defy explanation by gradual evolution. It’s, therefore, more logical to give credit to intelligent design. But, such a conclusion has serious ramifications. It would mean humans are not the top of an evolutionary pile. And, that there may be some purpose - even responsibility - towards life; and, particularly, towards the intelligence behind our creation.

The Hindu view is that the huge range of living creatures has been created with the purpose of facilitating the karma and desires of all the souls within the world. As our consciousness and karma improves, we evolve through reincarnation. What is ironic is that the dinosaurs with their limited sensibilities were able to rule the world for 150 million years. But, we humans need to improve ours, if we are to guarantee survival through the next millennium.

© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.

Animal morality

Science meets PhilosophyPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, June 18, 2009 22:58:55
Do animals have morality?

There have been a number of scientific studies recently that try to analyse if animals have any form of morality. This is obviously complex since it is nigh impossible to get inside the mind of a poor dumb creature and there is always the accusation of anthropomorphising.

The subject is important to many people because there seems to be various beliefs with vested interests in the interpretations. For instance, Charles Darwin believed that animals expressed morality and that what we understand as marlity in humans was derived from the primitive form in lower creatures. This is important as the basis for evolutionary psychology.

This was in direct contrast with Biblical creationists who need to believe that there is a major moral disctinction between humans and the animal kingdom. In their mind, morality is the perogative of the soul which can only be found in humans.

I suppose I alos need to mention my preconception informed by my interst in Vedanta philosophy. Vedanta asserts that all living beings are activated by the presence of the life force (atma or soul, if you like). Although there is no difference in the potency of the atma whichever type of body it inhabits, there is a limiting or conditioning effect when the soul is inside different species. The result is a hierarchy of conscious awareness from humans down through the species to a bacteria or whatever. So, Vedanta, in common with the evolutionary psychologists, would expect to see humanlike expressions in our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

There are many examples of caring behaviour in the animal world. Certainly, we see the care, even sacrifice, of mother animals for their children. But also, certain primates will share and feed other blind or indisposed members of their group not their relatives. In one experiment, chimps were receiving food by placing tokens in a machine. One chimp was having problems inserting the tokens, so another chimp intervened and inserted the tokens for her and let her take the food. Bonobo apes have shown kindness in helping other species. A friend of mine, tells of being rescued by dolphins who swam between him and some circulating sharks. The dolphins remained by his side until he reached the shore.

So, it appears that animals may indeed exhibit altruism, empathy, caring and selfless kindness and affection - and that's about as close to "love" as you can get.

However, it is a different question to define this as morality, which would seem to require a choice between right and wrong. I would suggest that the altruistic behaviour of animals is a choice of sorts. The animal sees a situation and chooses to intervene in a positive caring way, but is it because it is impelled by its empathy or because it has dwelt on the rights and wrongs of the scene?

Caring action is a symptom of a moral human, because we would define the opposite behaviour as immoral. Would we ever describe a chimp as immoral for not choosing to help a neighbour? I don't think so. So, as much as we are impressed and intrigued by animals showing empathy and caring, we don't judge them when it is absent. So, it seems there may be a distinction between altruism in animals and moral choices made by humans.

As much as Vedanta promotes the equality of all life, it also helps us to recognise the subtlely different restrictions or benefits for the soul as it transmigrates from life in one species to another. Veadnta acceots that all creatures express some form of love, but only when the soul is in a human body does it gain the additional awareness of the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of one's own actions. My dos know when they've done something I think is bad and they show contrition, but I reckon it's only because I am upset with them, not because they have a guilty conscience.

Vedanta ascribes the responsibility for our actions - good or bad - to humans and thus karma can only be accrued from human actions not by anything done whilst we are in an animal body.