There was once a community of frogs living in a well near the Atlantic Ocean. None of them had ever been out of the well, so they knew nothing of the outside world.
Then one day a particularly athletic young frog managed to leap out of the well. He began to explore. When he came to the beach and saw the ocean, he was astonished. He’d never seen anything like it, and he rushed back to the well to report his discovery.
Back in the well, the young frog excitedly asked to see the most learned frog in the community. This senior frog knew all there was to know about the sociology, history, and geography of the world-in-a-well. He was a veritable repository of froggish knowledge. Let’s call him Dr. Frog.
“Where have you been?” asked Dr. Frog of the young explorer. “What did you see?”
“I saw a vast body of water,” replied the young frog.
“How vast? Was it twice the size of our well?” And Dr. Frog puffed himself up a little in appreciation of such a huge body of water.
“No, no, sir. It’s much larger than that. You see—”
“Was it four times the size of our well?” Dr. Frog puffed himself up some more.
“No, no, sir. Much, much larger.”
“Ten times the size of our well?” Dr. Frog puffed prodigiously.
“No, no, you don’t understand.” And with that Dr. Frog puffed himself up a little more—and burst.
* * *
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual guide of the Hare Krsna movement, would sometimes tell this story to illustrate the limitations of the scientific method when applied to ultimate questions such as the origin of the universe or the existence and nature of God.
And scientists themselves admit these limitations. In 1980, Kenneth E. Boulding, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said this during an address to the organization’s annual convention: “Cosmology . . . is likely to be very insecure, simply because it studies a very large universe with a very small and biased sample. We have only been looking at it carefully for a very small fraction of its total time span, and we know intimately an even smaller fraction of its total span in space.”
Srila Prabhupada’s criticism of material knowledge echoes that found in the Vedic literature, India’s large body of philosophical writings. Thousands of years ago the Vedic sages analyzed the reasons why knowledge acquired through the material senses and mind is defective. First of all, the senses themselves are limited and imperfect. Second, we easily become illusioned. Third, we make mistakes. And fourth, we have a tendency to cheat, to claim possession of the truth when the foundations of our knowledge are shaky.
Let’s take a closer look at these impediments to materially acquired knowledge.
The first problem we face when trying to get accurate information about the external world is that our senses have physiological limits, or “thresholds of perception.” Take the eyes, for example. We can see only a tiny fraction of the total electromagnetic spectrum. An electromagnetic wave can range from one quadril-lionth of a meter up to 100 million meters in length. And of this immense array of energy, we can see only the waves between 400 and 750 millimicrons long. (A millimicron is a billionth of a meter.) Violet falls around the 400 millimicron range, blue around 450, green around 500, yellow around 600, and red around 700. Anything outside this thin band is invisible to us.
Our hearing is limited in the same way. Sound waves are measured in hertz, or cycles per second. Human hearing extends from 20 hertz up to 20,000 hertz. We’re deaf to any vibration above or below this range.
If we examine each of our remaining senses, we’ll find them similarly limited.
So our senses are imperfect. But what of scientific instruments? Can’t they help us get more perfect knowledge? Not really. They merely complicate things. Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner points out, “Even if we photograph the stars, we must eventually ‘take in’ by our senses what the photograph shows. Furthermore, without our senses, we could not handle a photographic camera. Clearly, all knowledge comes to us ultimately through our senses.”
So even if amplified or refined by instruments, whatever knowledge we base on sense perception is no more perfect than our imperfect senses.
Our eyes often play tricks on us. The two bars in figure a. are of equal height. The white triangle in figure b. isn’t really there. The drawing of the ” trident” in figure c. befuddles our mind and eye with its impossible perspective. And the diagonal lines in figure d. are parallel.
Our second defect is that we’re subject to illusion. Many of us have had the experience of driving down the highway on a hot day and seeing what looks like water up ahead, only to discover that none is actually there. So even if Dr. Frog could have gotten out of his well and seen the ocean, his perceptual problems wouldn’t have been over. “It is possible that I am wrong that the wet-looking blue patch apparently over there is the sea,” says Dr. R.L. Gregory, director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory at the University of Bristol, England. “I might possibly be dreaming or drugged. This may be unlikely, but it is possible; so my perceptions are not certain.”
Psychologists and other students of perception have done much research into illusion, particularly in the realm of vision.
The sense of touch is also highly susceptible to illusion. If our hand has been warmed sufficiently, “warm” water will feel cool. If the hand has been cooled, “cool” water will feel warm. This phenomenon leads to situations in which we can perceive the same water as simultaneously cool and warm! If we taste an orange after tasting sugar, the orange tastes sour. But after a lemon, an orange tastes sweet. Auditory illusions are also common, as the art of ventriloquism clearly demonstrates.
But there is another way in which ordinary perception puts us into illusion: The objects of our senses are constantly changing from moment to moment. They aren’t stable features of reality. This difficulty becomes particularly evident when we try to label these objects. In The Social and Psychological Distortion of Information, Charles K. West, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, says, “To name an object as ‘paper’ is to give it a permanence that somewhat masks the fact that it is a temporary appearance, temporarily existing in time and space.”
The same observation was made fifty centuries ago in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a classic Vedic philosophical treatise. The Bhagavatam describes the cosmic manifestation as “the world of names.” In his commentary on this passage, Srila Prabhupada explains, “The whole material creation is a jugglery of names only; in fact, it is nothing but a bewildering creation of matter like earth, water, and fire. The buildings, furniture, cars, bungalows, mills, factories, industries, peace, war, or even the highest perfection of material science, namely atomic energy and electronics, are all simply bewildering names of the material elements with their concomitant reactions.”
Yet another difficulty with sense perception is that we all make mistakes. Dr. Gregory (the brain specialist from Bristol) says, “Science, with all its dramatic successes, has from its beginnings also generated wildly incorrect accounts: stars as pinpricks in a crystal globe, electricity and heat as fluids, the brain as an organ to cool the blood. . . . These are dramatic deviations from what we now see as truth; and when invented they were deviations from what then appeared true.”
One recent example of such a mistake concerns the brontosaurus, best known of the dinosaurs, usually pictured as a snub-nosed, blunt-toothed giant. Speaking of the skeleton at the Carnegie Institute, assistant curator David Berman admits, “He’s got the wrong head. There are four other museums that have brontosaurus skeletons on exhibit, and they all have the wrong heads.”
It turns out the brontosaurus actually had a long snout and pointed teeth. The confusion apparently began in 1881 when a respected Yale paleontologist used the skeleton of a brontosaurus excavated in Colorado to put together the first picture of the huge reptile. Berman says, “He actually used a head that was found three or four miles away from the skeleton, but no one knew.” Berman’s colleague, Wesleyan University professor John McIntosh, says, “He guessed. He usually guessed right in things like this, but this time he didn’t.”
In another instance, three astronomers recently discovered a significant mistake in the Hubble Constant, an equation used as a cosmic yardstick to measure enormous distances in the universe. The Hubble Constant—named after astronomer Edwin P. Hubble—has undergone so many corrections since he first formulated it that many astronomers now laughingly call it “the Hubble Variable.”
Clearly, with our imperfect senses and our illusion-prone mind, mistakes are inevitable.
To err is human, the saying goes, but unfortunately humans sometimes go beyond innocent error and deliberately propagate untruths. Scientists are not immune to this shortcoming.
For many years, textbooks on evolution routinely cited the Piltdown Man as evidence that human beings have descended from an apelike ancestor. In 1912, archeologists excavated a humanlike skull and an apelike jaw from a gravel pit at Piltdown, in the British Isles. The bones were deemed parts of the same creature, which was duly reconstructed in full and placed in the British Museum as an example of a transitional phase between ancient ape and modern man. In 1953, however, investigators discovered that the jawbone of the Piltdown Man was actually of very recent origin and had simply been stained to look like a fossil. In addition, someone had filed the teeth down to change their appearance. In other words, the Piltdown Man was a fraud, apparently engineered by one of the original discoverers.
More recently, U.S. congressional committees have been investigating allegations that scientists working under federal research grants routinely falsify experimental data to keep the grant money coming. The Los Angeles Times reported, “In one of the congressional sessions. Dr. John Long admitted in sworn testimony that he had falsified research results in an experiment he conducted on Hodgkin’s Disease at the renowned Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He also admitted concealing from his co-workers findings that cells he had been describing for years as human cancer cells were in fact cells from a squirrel monkey.”
Such incidents are causing great consternation among leaders of the scientific community, who fear that growing public mistrust will result in funding cutbacks. Nevertheless, scientists still seem to enjoy quite a substantial reservoir of public confidence. In his book on the distortion of information, Dr. Charles West says, “Scientific information is thought not to be affected by the intellectual and emotional pitfalls which influence ordinary persons. Just to use the word scientific means to many people that the information is highly significant, indisputable, dispassionate, objective, beyond reproach, free from dogma, and highly rational.” But such is not always the case. As Dr. West so astutely observes, “Scientists view the world in terms of their needs, attitudes, values, interests, concepts, and structures just like everybody else, and their observations and findings are influenced by these factors.”
One problem is that nearly all scientists are employed by large institutions, usually a major university, a big corporation, or the government. So in addition to being hampered by all the imperfections of sensory perception, the scientist is under constant pressure to modify his findings to meet the needs of the institution he’s working for. As Dr. West notes, “The controls operate throughout the stages of research, which include problem selection, problem articulation, data analysis, hypothesis formation, and solution; or articulation of findings.”
Taking all this into consideration, we should be highly doubtful about the picture of the universe given us by natural science, what to speak of its ideas about ultimate questions like the origin of life and the existence of God.
Does this mean, however, that we can never hope for answers to such questions? No, but it does mean that we have to find another method of getting them.
According to the Vedic literature, the way to receive perfect knowledge about such ultimate questions is called the avaroha-pantha, the descending path of knowledge. It stands in contrast to the ascending path of material science, the method of speculative research with the imperfect mind and senses. As we have seen, this ascending path can never lead to certain knowledge. But on the descending path, we accept knowledge from a perfect source, one beyond the four defects. Only in this way can we circumvent these impediments and attain knowledge of God.
Consider the predicament of a man who doesn’t know who his father is because the father left home before he was born. How can the son know his father’s identity for sure? One alternative would be for the son to personally interview millions of men—obviously a tedious and most likely fruitless endeavor. This is the ascending path of knowledge. Another alternative is for the man to approach his mother and ask her who his father is. This method, the only method with any hope of certainty, is the descending path of knowledge.
The problem, of course, is finding a source of perfect knowledge—a source not subject to the four defects outlined above. Such a source is especially needed when we are searching for answers to questions about the origin of life and matter or the existence and nature of God—in other words, the Absolute Truth.
Devotees of Lord Krsna recognize the Vedic literature as the primary source of perfect knowledge about the Absolute Truth. Admittedly, a certain amount of faith is needed to embark on the process of realizing the truth contained in the Vedic knowledge, a process known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. But this faith is no different from the faith a freshman in a college chemistry course must have to begin his studies. He can’t be sure that the experiments will work or that the information in the textbooks is accurate (indeed, as we have seen, some of it probably isn’t), but he has faith in his professor, an expert in chemistry, and in all those who have gone before him, completed the course, and confirmed to their own satisfaction that the corpus of standard knowledge is true. Similarly, when someone takes up devotional service, he comes under the tutelage of a spiritual master, an expert in devotional service who teaches the knowledge contained in the Vedic literature and who has personally realized the Absolute Truth. The neophyte devotee also meets others who are further on in the course of bhakti-yoga and who have realized the Absolute Truth to some extent. And he himself begins to realize transcendental knowledge as he continues serving the Lord.
So the knowledge derived from the practice of bhakti-yoga, though outside the purview of the material senses and mind, is as scientific—or more so—than what we commonly accept as scientific fact.
The Vedic literature tells us that perfect knowledge originates with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the creator and controller of the entire material manifestation. If we wish to understand the ultimate meaning of a painting, we should approach the artist who painted it. He’s the best source of knowledge about his own creation. Similarly, the Supreme Lord is the best source of knowledge about the universe. He is not hampered by the defects of ordinary human beings. His senses are perfect and unlimited, and He is completely free from the propensity to become illusioned, make mistakes, and cheat.
At the beginning of creation, Lord Krsna spoke the perfect Vedic knowledge to Brahma, the first created being in the universe. Brahma then repeated the same perfect knowledge to his son and disciple Narada. Narada in turn spoke it to the sage Vyasa, who repeated it to his son and disciple Sukadeva Gosvami. And in the same way the Vedic knowledge has come down to the present day through a chain of disciplic succession. At a certain point, the Vedic teachings were committed to writing.
The most essential Vedic texts, such as Bhagavad-gita, contain the direct words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In contrast to other scriptures, which give only the most rudimentary accounts of creation, the Vedic literature gives detailed accounts of the origin of the cosmic manifestation, from the atom to the varieties of planetary systems.
The best way to attain perfect knowledge, then, is to approach a genuine spiritual master in the line of disciplic succession descending from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and to study the Vedic literature under his direction. The Bhagavad-gita advises, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” And the Mundaka Upanisad states, “To learn the transcendental science, one must approach a spiritual master who is part of a genuine disciplic succession and who is fixed in the Absolute Truth.” The link with the spiritual master is so important that the disciple traditionally prays, “I offer my respectful obeisances unto my spiritual master, who, with the torchlight of knowledge, has opened my eyes, which were blinded by the darkness of ignorance.”
So by accepting the transcendental knowledge that comes down through the chain of pure devotees of Krsna, one can rise above the defects of the material mind and senses and reach a scientific understanding of the Absolute Truth. The alternative is Dr. Frog’s philosophy—which is ultimately a bust.