Religion is often thought of as the antithesis to logical, scientific thought, with its unprovable claims and belief in things unseen. But not everyone sees it that way. In some traditions, symbolic thinking provides a bridge between the spiritual and earthly worlds, investing everyday objects with ineffable meaning. Venkat Venkatasubramanian is a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, and he has found that his career to be entirely compatible with his Hindu faith, even enhancing it. What lessons can Western traditions learn from this more integrated view?

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Brian Gallagher and Professor Venkat Venkatasubramanian discuss the surprising connections between mathematical, symbolic thinking and Hindu spirituality.

Brian Gallagher is the Blog Editor at Nautilus, a science, culture, and philosophy magazine for the intellectually curious. In 2012, he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, with a senior thesis on Just War Theory. He went on to receive, in 2014, a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University, with a master’s project on the rising interest of socialism and Marxism among millennials. Brian was once a non-denominational Christian and, in high school, became a Creationist and considered a future in youth ministry but, after taking geology in college, he reconsidered his views. He now identifies as an atheist.

Professor Venkat Venkatasubramanian is Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and a Professor of Computer Science (affiliated) and a Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (affiliated), at Columbia University in the City of New York. Venkat worked as a Research Associate in Artificial Intelligence in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University, taught at Purdue University for 23 years, where he was Reilly Professor of Chemical Engineering, before returning to Columbia in 2011. At Columbia, Venkat directs the research efforts of several graduate students and co-workers in the Complex Resilient Intelligent Systems Laboratory. He is also the founding Co-Director of the Center for Systemic Risks Management, a transdisciplinary center with faculty from a number of departments at Columbia University. Prof. Venkatasubramanian’s research contributions have been in the areas of process fault diagnosis and abnormal events management, risk analysis and management in complex engineered systems, informatics and cyberinfrastructure, molecular products design, pharmaceutical engineering and complex adaptive systems using knowledge-based systems, neural networks, genetic algorithms, mathematical programming and statistical approaches.  His teaching interests include process design, process control, pharmaceutical engineering, risk analysis, complex adaptive systems, artificial intelligence, statistical physics, and applied statistics. His other interests include comparative theology, classical music, and cricket.

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