Fiber bundles of life
A Dialogue between Science and Religion in Indonesia
A Preliminary Assessment through the Eyes of an Infant Forum
Premana W. Premadi
This paper was presented in the Metanexus Conference: Continuity + Change: Perspectives on Science and Religion, June 3-7, 2006, in Philadelphia, PA, USA
Science, in its truest sense and motivation, is a non-denominational endeavour and does not recognize artificial boundaries such as nationality. However, its progress and its application are undoubtedly heavily dependent on the culture where it is nurtured. Indonesia is a spread-out country with a large and heterogeneous population. Unity in diversity is not only a motto, it is a serious task. Education has been one of the most important means in achieving understanding amongst various parts of the population. Science may seem distant from this issue. However, one year LSI activity has proved otherwise: science is a bridge almost everyone trusts to get messages across from one faith to another, from one culture to another; precisely because science does not take sides but earnestly strives to understand how things in this universe come about and how they work.
Having said all that, science in Indonesia does not progress without adversaries. They do not so much come directly from religion or local culture, but more from one’s marginal point of view of what really matters. Sitting, rather unprepared, on the crossing between the pressing modern world and the pulling old traditions, Indonesians have to learn to set their priorities right. With information flowing in almost without restraint, education needs to be championed to see the matter in proper perspective. A healthy and meaningful dialogue between religion and science could offer insights for refining values. This is bound to be a tedious process, not in-line with the ‘quick gain” attitude of most new age cosmopolitans.
This paper is a result of a preliminary assessment of the science-religion-culture relation in Indonesia, particularly amongst academicians and the visionaries in society, plus a collection of ideas for future strategy, in hopes of making a contribution for the meaningful development of one nation as part of worldwide effort in reaching a better understanding of humanity.
Aside from daily chores which demand much, if not most, of our attention and energy, all those countable personal resources, our deeper mind and soul go out wondering beyond any physical boundary in search of “the meaning of all that”. It is interesting that if one asks another what he or she identifies as the ultimate question, more often than not, one receives similar general responses, regardless of geography, race, religion, gender, or even generation. Nonetheless, more interestingly, those similar questions motivate people to various directions, depending on the cultural and spiritual background of the people, and thus the answers are as varied as the human population.
Science, on the other hand, is a part of human endeavour that requires particular basic knowledge, concentrates on facts (gathered via observations of natural phenomena and experiments in laboratories), and uses strict method in its analysis. Science does not constitute any motivation in its work save to seek the truth that explains all the observed facts. Therefore science is nondenominational and heedless to any human-made boundaries, as such that science may be expected to offer common answers to questions related to natural/physical phenomena. This must be taken as a capital idea: human has invented a neutral discipline in the effort to gain understanding of the universe and its contents, and this can be used as a common ground for all the various disciplines and backgrounds to communicate to one another. Science lends itself as a profound means in achieving understanding amongst people in the world and thus promoting peace. This paper deals with how science can perform to meet the task. The dialogue between science and religion here is more on learning the nature and characters of science and of religion, but not on the argumentation between the two. The most private dialogue between science and religion can actually (surely routinely, for some) be performed within a person, where a person represents his/her whole up-bringing: faith, culture, formal education, family education, experiences, personal experiences, spiritual jolts, etc.
The questions such as whether a certain thing is good or bad, a certain conduct is right or wrong, even on the meaning of events/happenings, already filled the head of a pondering child. The experiences a person went through in his/her life: education, observations, experiments, etc, as a person or as a part of a community, construct way of perceiving all those that would lead to personal discoveries and hints to some answers. While searching for answers of the initial questions, further and deeper questions might arise. This would then lead to experience-based spiritual endeavour. When one steps into a larger circle, one is bound to meet with representatives of other background, opening a door to the dialogue amongst cultures and faiths. The dialogue may consist of exchanging ideas on the questions: whereas the ultimate question might be identified as more or less common, the details might vary from one culture to another. Since we all live on the same earth within the same universe, there are a lot of mutual experiences, perceived through the same human faculty (senses, feelings, etc), and these build a collection of facts. However, we might arrive at a divergence when it comes to interpretation and meaning of those facts. Varieties in methodologies and background ideas may give varieties of interpretations of a single observational result. Through this dialogue process there are hopes that the various details in the ultimate questions are identified and some common grounds are recognized.
The situation in Indonesia.
Indonesia is a country with top rank diversity: diversity in culture (ethnic groups, languages), faiths (‘modern” religions with some touches of background mysticism), level of education, exposure to information, etc. Whereas Abrahamic religions (for which God is transcendent with respect to nature) are predominant in Indonesia, the idea of immanent God (the idea of which could find its roots way back in archaic religions) still prevails though manifested rather differently. Many would accept at face value that all aspects of life: all physical phenomena, human tragedy, personal spiritual happenings, etc, as according to God’s will. This immediate identification of God in practically everything one could sense often renders, bluntly put, non-illuminated faith. As asking question is not, in some, considered as good habit of people of faith, a common (and hopefully truer) explanation to something could hardly ever be reached, for this explanation requires deeper questioning. Now combine this with the diversities mentioned above, one may get cracks as results.
Systems consist of heterogeneous human beings, such as a nation, a religious community, or something as tiny as a family, require rules and regulations to keep it in tact. As in any physical system, a system of human being tries to be in the possible lowest energy state. To achieve that state, it would go through certain thermodynamical process which could homogenise the members of the system by energy (or information) transfer. Now, a human being, that is a thinking and feeling individual being, just does not want to be perfectly the same with another human being, lest it lost its identity, which can be a pillar holding up the its dignity. In order for these particulars to remain identified, but without disintegrating the whole system, the natural physical process must be supplemented with rules and regulations. To enforce the rules and regulations, effort (i.e. energy) is continuously needed, such that the demand of the individuals and the demand of the system as a whole are kept in equilibrium. This is where a system of human beings differ from any other just physical system. A single human being is already a complex system, and a system of human beings is profoundly complex.
Even if all good things are stated and understood, in a developing country like Indonesia, more pressing matters are in order: poverty, injustice, and the uprising of extremists of all sorts, have caused social and political insurgencies. Being a country so spread-out geographically and heterogeneous in composition, the unity of the nation is at stake. With modern technology, everything is communicated at high speed. This quick flow of information pounding on a person’s head while he/she stands on a shaky ground with nothing but little preparation is sure to kick the person out of balance. The more pressing matters mentioned above only confuses the list of priority in a person’s life. (Very) short term agenda are filled with finding solutions to daily practical and individual problems. These solutions are often hastily suggested, disregarding the wider problem, and are usually unconcerned with long term impact. The better solutions would require better perspective and more careful analysis of the problem, and thus longer process; but, right now, there is just no time to worry about those. Hopefully this ‘right now’ would quit extending itself before anything, big or small, collapses.
Education offers a rich body of knowledge that includes at least basics in language, mathematics, science, history, geography, and arts, and some common/standard values and ethics (most often via religion and civics). Well done and received, education provides good ideas of world order, the flow of logic, the understanding of plurality, and builds perceptive mind and ability to apply individual skill and knowledge unto a world shared by many. The effort for keeping the rules and regulations for the system as mentioned above might be kept at minimum, and without requiring any authoritarian leader, if the citizens are well educated. Good knowledge serves as good digestion enzyme in processing all incoming informations into useful information (more knowledge) to be absorbed and the rubbish to be discarded. Education enriches, refines, and strengthens the fabric of a nation; constructs an agile texture that would allow harmonious progress in all aspects of humanity.
Science and Religion: A dialogue between two great spiritual movers.
As the flow of information and the application of technology cannot be restrained indefinitely, no culture and religion can forever restrain the progress of science. Lest culture and religion collapse, heralding the destruction of all humanity, they must make way (in the positive meaning) to the flow of scientific progress. This can be done, and must be done, through a healthy and sincere dialogue between science, religion, and culture.
In order for this dialogue to run in fairness and yield anything constructive, it is necessary to recognise, through education, the difference in nature between science and religion: what each of them offers, how they work, their limitations, etc. (While it is not always true, I shall, for present writing convenience only, put together religion and culture in one box, and put science in another). Towards the end of this section, I try to give a simple description of a spiritual human being, ethical human being, learned human being, who has a bit of a grasp on the preceding ideas of religion and science and where dialogue between science and religion can contribute.
Science is built upon factual enquiries manifested in repeated and methodical observation, followed by the search for any pattern or profile in the data that could lead to a hypothesis of a theory describing that observed fact. Since the observed fact is common, the theory describing it must be (or is worked out to be) construed as the factual truth, at least in its most general description, and it must have single meaning and uncompromisable. Factual enquiries, questioning through experiments (thought and/or worked) on the nature of things: what they are, how they work, how they come about, are perfectly fine (in fact, it is the way to go) in the domain of science. The work of science and scientific discovery are on the factual nature of things only, and therefore its conclusion, its implication, may be taken as valid in the factual domain only. Imposing its finding to other domain that requires different human faculty such as spiritual motivation, moral values, etc, to make an ethical judgment on a certain conduct, for example, can no longer be considered as scientific work. Being without value, without moral, science may seemed cold compared to all other human endeavours, but it is precisely because of this unsidedness, science can make progress in discovering the nature of things in the universe. Furthermore, science with its endless enquiries and continuous examination on nature and tests on its findings is a progressive evolution in itself. History of civilisation keeps a long record of the treacherous path of scientific growth: how an idea which conformed better with observational data toppled an older one, how an idea encompassed partial ideas and become a more general one, and so on. Done so honestly and earnestly only in search for truth, science provides itself as a reliable vehicle for human to embark on other journeys.
Religion (and culture) on the other hand, works more on ethical and spiritual enquiries, the outcome of which could be multi-interpreted. It is important to note that ethical enquiry can also be done without any religious background. ‘Not to step on another person’s toes’ is as much a moral value to people with faith as to atheists; or a person can be very spiritual without identifying herself/himself with certain religious denomination. In the domain of ethics and spirituals the enquiries are more directed towards finding the meaning and purpose of truth, rather than just the truth itself. Each person is free to seek and workout the answer to the ethical and spiritual enquiries he/she himself/herself formulated along a chosen path (religion, other spiritual frameworks, etc). The path might be fenced, and throwing a ball of idea over the fence to the neighbour’s lawn might cause serious repercussion if they are not true friends. On the other hand, neighbours can work together to prevent from being unnecessary impedement in the progress of humanity, for example by working hand-in-hand on a particular actual issue. Even if the issue is more ‘terrestrial’ in nature, working together gives a chance for neighbours to know each other and appreciate their goodness, and it opens way to further and perhaps more meaningful communication.
In pursuit of this holistic truth, human faculty is to function in its wholesomeness while subjecting itself to the delicate balance required amongst all its parts, which are properly recognised and respected. By recognising the domain of each part, be it science or religion, then the freedom to enquire and work within that domain is guaranteed. It is thus fine to ask about the nature of the universe, how we human came about, etc, within the domain of science. Scientists work fervently to get sound and testable explanations for those questions. With this vehicle, one can enter the other domain to ask the other set of questions: what does it mean to be human, what is the purpose of the universe, etc. Science, the vehicle does not tell us where to go to find the answers, other part of human faculty steers the wheel of the vehicle. The condition of the vehicle, however, might determine how far one can go. This is the depth of our understanding. The deeper one goes, the more likely one finds the right direction towards a common and true understanding in reaching the ultimate answer.
This LSI, The Bandung Society for Cosmology and Religion (BSCR), is a one year old forum which tries to accommodate ideas for constructive dialogue between religion and science, particularly on the subject that concerns with cosmology. The forum began with nine main members (speakers) and twenty-ish regular members. Each of the main members represents a field of expertise: philosophy, religion, culture, and science, as each of them has formal trainings and education at least in one of those subjects. They are responsible for laying out the foundation for the dialogue platform and for making clear the idea and workbench, as well as the limits, of their respective field. With the advancement of technology, scientific cosmology has become one of the most progressive branch of science, offering high-precision data from distant sources, representing the view of universe when it was young, a view undreamt of even 20 years ago. Scientists are still keeping their noses on the grinder to get a rigorous description on how the universe and all its contents (including us) come about by first getting a good scientific interpretation of the data, while accepting the fact that there is a lot more out there than meets the eye. They know their description is never complete as horizon hinders the view of the entire universe. On the other hand, they are also hurried to give further interpretation, beyond scientific interpretation of the data. This is where some scientists may slip and fall into the pit. In Indonesia, where everyone must claim a faith, this is not unusual. In the old days, a guru would be the right person to tell us how to make fire and prepare dietary food, tell us right from wrong, tell us how to live a happy life, etc. Some of this idea still propagates to this day in Indonesia, and some scientists are still inclined, or are invited, to add his/her spiritual view on his/her scientific subject. This is fine as long as the scientist makes it clear which one is the scientific statement and which one is not, otherwise science ceases to be the neutral probe in understanding this “whole thing”. However, scientists, being human, do have personal orientation and motivation. BSCR is striving to make this clarification an important issue. Discussions on themes of science and religion are usually well attended. People want to learn, but also people want to hear that their faith gets scientific confirmation. BSCR tries hard that people gets the first thing they want, but urges that they work on their own to get the second one. This may seemed harsh, but what it actually means is that the forum provides with some knowledge and suggestions on how to communicate relevant ideas, in hope that these will enable the participants to ask further questions, refine questions, give mindful interpretation in reading the holy scriptures, and embark into a deeper and intelligent spiritual journey. All the while holding the basic spirit, that is to have respect and trust that each person’s participation is a well-meant effort in trying to learn and understand. Understanding and respecting the differences in ideas of truth are already considered a virtue. This is like putting stepping stones at the right places so that we could move forward while keeping the rest of the world within comfortable reach that we remain humanely connected and peace is assured.
Describing reality is very much like trying to fit infinity within a finite frame, limited though borderless. It requires all human faculty to function in impeccable balance such that in the whole picture each colour and hue, each shape and corner, each size and stroke, each image and sense, all of them, are recognised and dignified.
I am deeply grateful to my friends and colleagues in BSCR for their insights and wonderful spirit in making this dialogue a fruitful work, and to the Department of Astronomy and the Bosscha Observatory of the Institut Teknologi Bandung for providing space and equipments for BSCR monthly seminar. I am thoroughly indebted to the Metanexus Institute for realising this forum, by providing us with generous fund and infinite ideas, and for enabling me to participate in this conference.