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.Read Transcript
Brian Gallagher: Well, Venkat, it’s good to be back with you. We spoke previously about your previous book on economics, but in that conversation we touched a little on your scientific views about consciousness and got into a little about your Hindu faith, so I’d like to know a bit more about that. How do you approach faith and science in your life and how do the two interact, and how do you reconcile any inconsistencies?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: This is something which I have wondered all my life, all my adult life. And certainly, for the last 30, 40 years I’ve thought about this quite a bit, as to how to reconcile what you hear from the religious side and what you see as a scientist, you know, what you learn of the world and the universe to some extent.
I think Hinduism gives me a certain overlapping latitude and a certain framework to address this apparent dichotomy. The scriptures, which are anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 years old, depending on what you believe, when describing God, which is referred to as Brahman, which is a Sanskrit word in the ancient scriptures – Brahman is defined by three fundamental properties. In Sanskrit it goes as sat, cit and ananda. Sat stands for truth or existence, or essentially, it’s the true reality. Cit stands for consciousness, and ananda is roughly, “bliss”. So Brahman is defined as a being which is always present, and that is the true reality. And it is infinitely conscious, and it is infinitely happy, so that is the state of bliss.
So I see, then, this whole thing in the framework of a spectrum of consciousness going from zero to infinity, ends up where? So this is where I wear my scientific hat and try to interpret what this means, perhaps scientifically. And by the way, my understanding has been evolving over the years, and still this is a work in progress, so it’s not a finished product, whatever I say.
So at the one extreme, we have things with zero consciousness, and that would be pure matter, matter that’s inert. And the other extreme is this being with infinite consciousness. And Hinduism kind of intimates that this is a continuous spectrum. At one extreme, you have zero consciousness in matter, so there is consciousness, no consciousness, but there is matter. The other extreme, it’s pure consciousness, devoid of matter. So that’s again, very interesting, that – can consciousness exist by itself, without a chassis? It’s sort of like, you know, basically consciousness is like an engine, and the body – matter – is like the chassis, and then we think that consciousness can exist only in a material body, and that it cannot exist purely on its own.
Now, Hinduism says that’s a possibility, that it could have a pure – and so then it creates a whole set of questions which are hard to answer in current science, but perhaps down the road we might be able to, of what, you know, what are the laws that govern this conscious state? Now, that’s a really difficult question to answer, because we don’t even understand what our consciousness means, you know. For example, we don’t understand, we don’t know, how a single neuron is not self aware, but when you take 100 billion of them and organize them in a particular way, just like a the human brain or a mammalian brain, the whole thing is self aware. How does that come about? So we don’t understand that.
So when we are in that state, where we don’t even understand what it means to be conscious from a purely mechanistic point of few, drilling down to the fundamentals of biology and physics and chemistry – to deny the existence of other conscious states above us, I think that that’s a bit premature.
And so, the way – I don’t necessarily agree with all the details of Hinduism with respect to the rituals and so on and so forth, but I think the broad framework allows for a discussion and plurality of thoughts, and it is broadly consistent with the things which are at large. It’s fine with Darwinism, and that’s a very important scientific breakthrough we’ve had. And then it is consistent with – broadly consistent with the age of the universe, age of the planet. Now, the where?, it has said something which scientifically we haven’t quite figured out, is this infinite spectrum of consciousness, and that there are higher states that are possible. Now, scientifically, we haven’t found any evidence for that. But it’s too premature to say that such things are absurd.
So as a practicing Hindu and practicing scientist, I don’t see a whole lot of conflicts between these two, because Hinduism allows for these kind of questions to be asked and answered, and some of the answers […] make sense even though they said this 3000 years ago, 5000 years ago, they still make sense today, as we’ve learned more and more about the universe and life.
Brian Gallagher: Why try to make sense scientifically of these stories and ideas about an infinite consciousness? Why not just start from what we can know scientifically, and then build our conclusions from there?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: I’m perfectly fine with that, and in fact, that’s the world I live in. On a daily basis, that’s exactly what I do. And in fact, the problem we work on, on emergence, which is how do we get more complex systems and behaviors out of millions of fairly simple elements – the neuron-to-brain transition is one of those. So how does complexity emerge from simplicity? That is actually my scientific question. What I’m trying to – the reason I look into the religion to try to see, I’m trying to see whether there are some insights they have which might be helpful in thinking about these kind of problems. And particularly, I’m interested in the neuron-to-brain and mind, and emergent behavior. And since the Hindus talk about consciousness a lot, I’m trying to understand from a mechanistic point of view whether I can get some get some insights from there, which then I can put in a mathematical framework.
Brian Gallagher: So how does symbolism and Hinduism play a role in your thought about the world and science?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: Right. So, symbolism plays a big role in Hinduism. And in fact, if you don’t understand the symbolism, you can interpret Hinduism completely wrong, and embark on a path which would make absolutely no sense. And I see Hindu symbolism very much like how we approach a problem in mathematics. So for example, you know in algebra – so let’s say it’s Halloween, and you’re sitting at the door with a basket full of candies, and after three, four hours, after Halloween winds down, you look at your basket and you are left with one candy. So if I were to ask you “how many candies did you start out with?”
So how would we solve this problem mathematically? It’s a very simple problem with algebra. You would first say, let’s say, I had x number of candies initially, then I gave out one to the first kid, so x – 1, then two to the next one, x – 3, then my wife came along and added ten more, so it’s 6 – 3 + 10, it’s + 7 now… so you’ll keep track of these additions and subtractions, and then finally, you’ll have an expression and that is set equal to 1, and then you solve and you figure out what x is.
So, think about what we have done here. You’re didn’t know how many candies you had, made up a number, like, made up a symbol, x. You don’t know what x is, but you treat it as if you know. You subtract numbers from it, you add numbers to it, we can divide it, we can multiply it, and you go through this, and eventually x reveals itself. Even though you didn’t know what it was, finally, at the end of the journey, you found out what it was. And all along, you treated it as if you knew it, like any other number.
And that’s exactly what the Hindus do in our approach to God. For example, you know, we worship various forms in metal or stone, and when people think “oh, they’re just worshipping a stone figure or a stone statue,” they’re missing the point. That stone is x for us. We don’t know what God is, so that’s x. But we treat it as if we know him (or her, or it, all three are admitted in the Hindu philosophy). So you treat it like a real being. So you bathe it. You offer food to it. You decorate it. You talk to it, which is what the chants are. This is exactly like what we do in algebra. You take an unknown quantity but treat it as if you know it, and in this journey eventually x reveals itself, so God reveals himself or herself or itself. So that’s where symbolism matters a lot.
Brian Gallagher: OK. So, but with arithmetic and other forms of mathematics, we use them to describe reality very usefully; you can predict what happens. So what does the symbolism in Hinduism give us? How does it improve or help us live better lives?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: Yeah, basically, God, for all practical purposes, is an unreachable abstract quantity of an abstract state, right. It’s an unknown quantity, so how do you deal with an unknown quantity in a realistic – in reality, in the real world, where this is something by all definitions that’s infinite, it’s unreachable, it’s beyond our comprehension, and that’s how it’s usually defined. But somehow you want to know about it, learn about it.
And I see a very strong parallel between that and then how we treat an unknown quantity in mathematics. You give it a symbol, and then you treat it as if you know it, and that’s – so this, basically what it helps the Hindus do, is to think about this abstract form, so there’s a given here that there is abstract form, so the question is, how do you build a relationship with it?
So here’s this approach. You know, you create a small statue or whatever, and then the more realistic it looks, the more believable it is for people to relate to, so in principle you can take a piece of rock, and that’s your x, and treat it like all the things I said. And that will get you there too. But it is a lot easier for people to believe in something which, when it looks like it’s human, personified. So many of the Hindu gods look like humans, but – extra hands. The extra hands, again, is the symbol to say that the four hands, for example, typically of Vishnu basically, the extra hands symbolizes: this is a being that has capabilities beyond your abilities. So you know, differences between animals and humans as for example, we have two hands, and with two hands, we do things. Now with four hands, we can do more things. And so that has that kind of symbolism again.
So it’s not as though we think there is a God with four hands. Again, the four hands is symbolism for signalling capabilities which are beyond the human level. And so the more clues in that figure that makes you think about these things, the more believable it is for you to treat that x as a real thing, and essentially all this is to help ordinary people grasp something very distant and very abstract.
Brian Gallagher: That helps me transition to what I would like to mention, through you. So recently something sad happened in my family. About a month ago, I received a message from one of my aunts who lives in Peru – my mom’s side of the family is Peruvian – and she asked me to pray for someone who was really ill. And I didn’t – it wasn’t specified who it was, but I responded, you know, “OK, sure no problem, you know, I hope everything works out,” right, but I didn’t actually pray, as I don’t believe that will help. But I thought the person – I thought about them recently, because I found out who it was, but I didn’t know at the time, but I said I would think about just wishing well, you know. And I found out that it was my cousin’s wife, who died of cancer recently. She was battling ovarian cancer.
And so I think about them – like, praying for this person to get better, and I’m really sad about it, and I just wonder, like, how this religious belief that maybe something good can happen out of prayer seems to just add more complication and mystery to something that could be less painful if we just understood it naturally as something that happens to people. Instead, they’re forced to think that like, “oh, maybe God wanted this to happen,” “maybe for some reason God wanted to take her away,” maybe it’s because it’s a punishment for something that they did as a family, “maybe we didn’t pray hard enough.”
So – I don’t know how to feel about this aspect of belief I consider kind of superstitious. It might be a part of religion in that way, but it might not be essential to religion. But so, I just felt morally conflicted there, because I mean, I’m not going to tell them “I’m not going to pray because I’m an atheist.” But yeah – I just think that it would be better for people, in my opinion, if we didn’t have this confusion brought on by a belief in prayer’s effectiveness in helping people. But I see that it brings people together also, knowing that someone is praying for someone who’s ill, it lets you know that someone else is also sharing your pain and your hope, and that is comforting as well.
So do you – is there anything in Hinduism for you, that you rely on for consolation, or do you have a more naturalistic view when it comes to trying to deal with hardship?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: Again, you’ve been asking excellent questions, and difficult questions, Brian. And [I] haven’t really thought that much about the emotional aspect of it. You know, the religion partly exists because it provides some kind of emotional or psychological support along the lines you mentioned. And it might just be easier to leave everything to just chance. Like, it’s just a random event, after the Big Bang, things evolve, we are here, and there is really no purpose to life, there is no meaning to life, and life forms come and go, and there’s no point in reading more into it. So that kind of an approach, perhaps, will help people cope with these kind of things in some way. To me, you know, this is very personally, that there’s no meaning to life – it’s very dissatisfying to me.
Brian Gallagher: I don’t say that there’s no meaning to life.
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: And so in the sense – so I don’t mean to imply you said that, but to leave everything as a random thing, and then, you know, we are here through random evolution, like the dinosaurs, so, you know, something might happen and we’ll all go away – I think that would be to me a very uninteresting prospect. It is much more interesting to think that one is part of a larger program.
Brian Gallagher: There’s the Darwinian program. Darwinism isn’t saying it’s all chance. I mean, there’s a law of nature to it, there’s something that we can discover.
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: True, true, but whether we are here or not depends on the asteroid, and that’s purely a matter of chance, and so, there is a big element of chance in Darwinian programs.
Brian Gallagher: I also wanted to ask you about what do you think will happen when you die? Do you think – do you believe in the karmic story of successive rebirths? Does that inform how you feel about your own aging process, approaching old age?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: Right, thank you very much for reminding me of my old age, but I try not to think about it too much. (laughs) But again, another great question. And as you know, the Hindus believe in this cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and at some point, you are liberated, and then you break away from this cycle. And then, you know, there are some ways out of this – how do you get out of this potentially infinite cycle?
So this one, I think of it there a bit like a Groundhog Day kind of a thing, the Hindu view of the karmic cycle. Remember, in Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character initially is kind of like a jerk, but he’s stuck on Groundhog Day. But in a few days, he realizes that he’s actually stuck there every day, it’s the same day, it’s to relive that life. And he uses that to actually better himself. And finally, towards the end of the movie, he actually becomes a much better person. And when that happens, the day moves forward.
And that’s basically the Hindu view of life. We are all in Groundhog Day, and so our existence here is like the groundhog day. So you’re given a chance to better yourself, to improve yourself. If you don’t, you’re born again, and you’re given another chance. Essentially, you’re given the infinite chances, and at some point we all get better and we break free and we reach what the Hindus call Vaikuntha, which is roughly the equivalent of heaven. So once you go there, then the soul doesn’t and return back. There is something appealing about this to me, because it’s not a one-shot – where if I don’t get it right, you know, I end up in hell, and if I get it right, I am released. I get infinite chances, I get many chances. So I think that is, to me, a much more optimistic view.
Brian Gallagher: Do you think it’s accurate?
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: Ah! I think it’s scientifically impossible to verify, and then the only way to verify this is to go to the other side, and see what there is. And generally people who have gone there to the other side don’t seem to come back, and even if they come back and tell us, who’s going to believe them, right? Yeah, so this will be one of those things where it’s hard to prove , hard to disprove also, by the way, so it will be a Gödel-like proposition, the undecidability kind of thing. Look, if they’re going to think – you can’t decide one way or the other, so yeah, that’s the problem.
Brian Gallagher: Well, all right, thank you for the time.
Venkat Venkatasubramanian: thank you. Man, that was tougher than I had imagined.
Brian Gallagher: Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. It was produced by Sinai and Synapses, and you can follow more of their work on their website and on Twitter and Facebook.