Science and Civilisation: The Critical Vision of Paulos Mar Gregorios / Fr. Dr. K. M. George

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios was the moderator of the famous conference on Faith, Science and Future organized by the WCC at the MIT, Boston, USA in 1979. His contribution to the debate between ‘science and religion’ left a deep impression on the elite gathering of some of the best scientists and theologians present there.

Apart from his work associated with the organizing and running of this conference Mar Gregorios had always showed great critical concern for the project of science and secularism. His interest in the nature of science was part of his overriding quest to understand the nature of Reality. He recognized the key role played by science and technology in shaping the category of ‘the secular’ and the nature of Reality as perceived by the secular world view. He sought to examine the roots of this issue in his brilliant works on, ‘Enlightenment East and West’ and other writings. We give below, very briefly, some aspects of the critical position of Mar Gregorios in his own words with respect to the nature of science and its perception of Reality.

Children of Enlightenment:

Mar Gregorios begins to examine the philosophy of modern science with a critical look at the foundations of the Enlightenment, the great “cultural – intellectual process that emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century and is now spreading to the rest of the world.1 The two central elements of this process were the overthrow of the authority of tradition and the enthronement of critical rationality in its place. Thus the Enlightenment Movement actively promoted the abandoning of socially held dogmas and beliefs in its quest for the rational, the universal and the readily demonstrable.2

The Enlightenment movement represented “the full flowering of Western civilization and its values and orientations.” It is the source of modern western science and technology as well as that of western concept and practice of the secular.

Mar Gregorios thinks that Enlightenment has entered its old age with the consequent loss of physical vigour and an increase in wisdom, especially since the seventies of the 20th century. But the three older children of the movement are alive, though not quite well. The three children are modern science / technology, critical rationality and the democratic institutions of government and decision making. They, thinks Mar Gregorios, are much less dogmatic today than in their earlier phase.3 Consequently, i) Science does not seem to claim any more that it is the only way to knowledge and that all other knowledge are either false or nonsense. 2) Critical rationality of the individual is not any more absolute. It does not claim to make sense of reality without reference to any tradition or external reality, 3) Democratic institutions do not seem to make any absolute claim that their decisions are the result of a social contract that no one can question.

Critiquing Critical Rationality

“Science and technology, the most treasured product of the European Enlightenment and western civilisation”4 has been reinforcing the Enlightenment and vice versa for more than two centuries. Mar Gregorios believes that going beyond the assumptions of Enlightenment requires transcending science and technology. But why should one transcend them? Mar Gregorios, in spite of his criticism of Enlightenment rationality, positively appreciates the affirmation of the human in that great western movement. He also has appreciation for the great achievements of science and technology for the welfare of humanity despite his criticism of the bondage of present scientific enterprise to industrial – political – military vested interests. So why transcend?

Modern science’s claim that we can arrive at objective truth by following the scientific method is not substantiated by our scientific experience. The subject – object distinction is essential for scientific method. Although this has produced some “operational truth” within certain limits, the subject-object distinction and the notion of objective truth based on it do not hold good at deeper levels of scientific experiment like for instance, the level of sub-nuclear particle physics. Our traditional con­cepts of truth and knowledge become meaningless here. Science’s critical rationality itself can reveal the irrational and the ‘unreason’ within Reason at several points.

Invoking philosophers of science and thinkers like Karl Popper and Wesley Salman, Kuhn and Feyeraband, Heidegger and Hebermas, Mar Gregorios points out that the contemporary science’s truth claim is conditioned by cultural, political and social parameters of western civilization, and that other forms and modes of truth and rationality are possible in cultures unaffected by the western mindset. The problem according to Mar Gregorios is that the light of the western Enlightenment has been too bright that it obscures all other lights in the sky and thus positively distorts the world we see in that light.

Dogmas of Science Re-examined

In order to unveil “Reason’s Unreason” in the Enlightenment, Mar Gregorios critically reviews ten assumptions of the modern western scientific enterprise and its principle of critical rationality:5

1. Naive realism assumes that there are subjects and objects and that the subjects can know the objects as they are. According to this view, what cannot be known is not real or non – existent. Enlightenment rationality has no notion of transcendent knowledge that overcomes the opposition between the knower, the known and the knowledge.

2. Truth is essentially an ongoing quest, and not a concept, idea or proposition as understood in the Enlightenment. Truth is what is, not what is stated. A valid proposition about truth can be a help in the quest, but is itself not the object of the quest.

3. Language is understood as the primary and the most important means of communication. However, any absolutisation of the linguistic or literary communication as the only means of communicating truth is to be questioned. Non-verbal forms of conveying truth is as important as the linguistic one.

Enlightenment has overplayed the roles of language and conscious mind. Symbol, myth and ritual have been qualified as irrational by Reason. This is now being thoroughly reviewed.

4. Epistemology or theory of knowledge has been used in modern scientific disciplines as the guarantor of truthfulness. All forms of “scientific’ thinking begins with the critical examination of the questions how do we know? No role of religion or scripture or other external authority is recognised in scientific epistemology. But it has failed to guarantee truth. Except for some operational purposes, the scientific knowledge yielded by epistemology remains unproved.

5. Conscious reason is understood by the Enlightenment as the instrument of knowing. But there are other ways and levels of knowing like the one we receive through meditation.

6. Scientific explanation of anything heavily depends on the principle of causation. But in non-western religions like Buddhism, there are different logical ways of explaining reality without idolising causality. The famous Jungian “synchronicity” is an example from the west itself.

7. Enlightenment considers measurement based science as a way to precise knowledge. But measurement is possible only within a limited time-space entity. Ways of knowing reality that cannot be measured by scientific reason exist in our world.

8. One of the unexamined assumptions of modern science is that the universe exists in itself and by itself. In this assumption, God is an unnecessary hypothesis. But theoritical insights into such things like Multiple Possibility Universe, dark matter and other cosmic phenomena raise a big question here. Non-western and so-called primitive cultures have produced better models to understand the reality of the universe.

9. Time and space are considered as given in our modern science. But the ancient question whether they exist independent of our consciousness or whether they are just products of our mind is gaining currency in scientific circles. European secularism will falter once we recognize in our logic the contingency of the time-space reality and its transcendent dimension.

10. Modern European rationality conceives the linear character of evolution, development and progress as axiomatic. This has absolutised our present western mind-set and the reality it conceives as final. Alternate visions of change and progress coming from other cultural settings radically question the progressist notion of history and time-space reality.

Mar Gregorios hopefully looks ahead for a new form of civilization radically different from the contemporary dominant western model. The new civilization will mean learning other ways of knowing, related to art and poetry, to intuition and imagination, but perhaps also to faith, hope and love, to rite and ritual, to religion and the mystical experience.”6

A major question Mar Gregorios attempts to tackle is whether critical rationality, the essence of Modern European Enlightenment can be conceptually reconciled and related with the transcendental or mystical experience of ‘religious enlightenment’, fundamental to Indian identity.”7
This, according to him, is the key to the dialogue between science and religion.


1. Paulos Mar Gregorios. Enlightenment East and West. Indian Institute of Advanced study. 1989, Shimla. p. III.
2. Ibid..
3. Ibid.. p. 58
4. P. Mar Gregorios. A Light too Bright: The Enlightenment Today, State University of NewYork Press. 1992, p. 131.
5. Ibid., p. 148 f.
6. Ibid., p. 113.
7. Mar Gregorios, Enlightenment. op. cit. p. VIII.

(Sahayatra, Nov.-Dec, 2004)