Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Science and nonsense

Dr K Radhakrisnan
Photo courtesy the Frontline
Man cannot live by reason alone, if I may paraphrase Jesus so.  Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  A friend of mine added humorously, “Man needs butter too.”  Jesus is believed to have meant that people need spiritual food in addition to material bread.  The chief of Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO], K. Radhakrishnan, paid obeisance to the deity in the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati before the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission last November.  The Frontline has published a brilliant article about the issue.

Can a scientist of Radhakrishnan’s stature afford to be as superstitious as to go with a miniature model of his rocket to a mute statue and seek its blessings?  Isn’t it his duty to transcend the need for the “psychological boost” provided by such an infantile exercise?

Or is Radharkrishnan giving us a convincing proof that man cannot live by reason alone? 

Man is not as much a rational being as Aristotle would have us believe.  There is a beast within every human being, man or woman, a beast driven by passions.  The rational faculty enables us to keep that emotional beast under control.  But reason is a very dry thing; there’s no fun in it, as Oscar Wilde would say.  What’s interesting about a mathematical equation or a scientific theory?  If any of the numbers or letters in the equation or the theory could lose their temper once and start fighting, or fall in love with each other… if they show some emotion, they would be interesting. 

Religion offers that sort of ‘entertainment’ in the times of conflicts or riots.  Some of our political leaders offer us that sort of entertainment in addition to their usual gimmickry in their respective motleys.  But the kind of religion that Radhakrishnan sought for was different.  “Psychological boost,” he called it. 

Karl Marx defined religion as the opium of the masses.  The pie in the sky promised by almost all religions is the panacea for all the ills on the earth.  Bear with the all the evils here, and you will get paradise there: that’ the promise.  Religion is a good palliative, an effective drug.

Should scientists take recourse to such a drug?  Shouldn’t they be guided by reason alone?  Well, scientists are human beings too, you see.  They too need, occasionally at least, the illusory consolations that the gods can provide. 

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”  Orated Shakespeare’s Hamlet who must have been familiar with the philosophical notion about the great chain of being, according to which God reigned supreme at the top of the hierarchy among beings, angels and spirits occupying the lower rung, human beings in the middle, with animals followed by inanimate objects creeping in the lowest realms. 

Man is the paragon of animals.  He is between the spirits and the animals, sharing the qualities of both: the light of reason as well as the darkness of instincts.  Man is the best animal, in other words.  Animal, and hence no escape from the instincts and passions, for him.  That’s why he is driven, occasionally albeit, with his miniature scientific models to gigantic though mute idols.    

After reading the Frontline article (cited above), I was left wondering whether gods and angels might be beings of pure reason without any passions or emotions.  No, it can’t be, I think.  Without passions like love and beauty, and emotions like compassion, how can any being be perfect?  A being with purely rational perfection would be an abstraction.  A mere thought?  A mere dream?

So I conclude that passions and emotions are necessary for real beings.  But should these passions and emotions drive one to superstitious practices?  Doesn’t such quest for a “psychological boost” reveal a lack of confidence in one’s faculty which created the technology?  I would have found it acceptable if the scientist had given a different excuse (or reason, if you prefer).  If the scientist had said that his religious ritual was a symbol of his surrender to the ultimate mystery that lies beyond his reason, a sign of his humble admission of the limitations of his faculty, I would have accepted it happily.  Humility is a virtue.  Nonsense is not compatible with science. 

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I really find the scientist's explanation a non-sense. I don't know who created religion but God is not human's creation. I believe in God. I haven't seen him. But there's a positive feeling, the goodness that I feel within me. Something that keeps me righteous, that's what I name as God. And this belief cannot be a superstition. Further, it's difficult to state any practice as an act of superstition. Who knows that there is some greater force adding up meaning to these so called 'superstitious' practices?

    Congrats for 1 lac visits on your blog. Cheers! :)

    1. I describe myself as an agnostic, Namrata. In practice, I am an atheist because I live paying no attention whatever to god(s). I think it is the duty of each individual to be intellectually honest, and my intellectual honesty finds it impossible to accept god(s). But I understand human feelings and emotions. I understand the emotional needs. I can tolerate religious practices because of that. But when a scientist goes to this extent, I find myself laughing. And a bit scandalised too.

      Thanks for the compliments. I'm happy too about that 6 digit mark.

  3. Oh this is a very well thought-out piece, one quoting from my favourite authors and presenting its case really well. Loved this, Tomichan. And I agree - "If the scientist had said that his religious ritual was a symbol of his surrender to the ultimate mystery that lies beyond his reason, a sign of his humble admission of the limitations of his faculty, I would have accepted it happily. Humility is a virtue. Nonsense is not compatible with science."

  4. I am in full agreement with you.. "........the ultimate mystery that lies beyond his reason, a sign of his humble admission of the limitations of his faculty......." My being less religious is already a scandal in itself at my in-laws place (thankfully my better half follows the rituals and all for me and my family...sigh.) But I am not an atheist.

    1. Kokila, living as an atheist in India is difficult. So you remain neutral without making a commitment. You can't afford to offend your family. I was a victim of the same situation in my youth.

  5. very well written sir. Few days back, I read a survey were most of the scientists are atheists or agnostics. And the scientists who were religious, most of them hailed from Asia. I wanted to send you that link, but could not find it. I think it is the cultural influence which stops people from thinking beyond. As someone has said, you should either believe Science or religion. I think this scientist might be an agnostic or atheist, but sometimes he has to act according to the people besides him, who are religious, ( they might be in the same field too). May be he is a believer, or never could dare to question the mystery.

    1. Thank you, Niranjan, especially for thinking of me when you came across a particular article related to religion.

      I totally agree with your view on the cultural influence. I have seen thousands of people in India (different states) who suffer from this problem. We have been brought up to live in straitjackets, it looks like. The moment we are out of the straitjacket, we feel like fish out of water. But the terrible paradox is that we have adopted the western culture in many spheres: soft drinks, pubs, dress, cinema, internet...!

  6. Well, I am completely against the makes-no-sense practices of any religion that was unfortunately man-made and still continues in this post-modern age !! ...But in this case, I think the "psychological boost" does not echo any lack of confidence but rather seems to mean what you have aptly reflected in these lines- "If the scientist had said that his religious ritual was a symbol of his surrender to the ultimate mystery that lies beyond his reason, a sign of his humble admission of the limitations of his faculty, I would have accepted it happily. Humility is a virtue. Nonsense is not compatible with science." I don't judge that a man of Dr K Radhakrisnan's stature could be superstitious !!

    By the way, 2-3 days ago I have penned down a similar article (incidentally, it also ends with the same thoughts :-) ) -

    1. I read your post and have expressed my view there. My response here wouldn't be different.

      Science in India is succumbing to pressures from religion and traders. Politicians as well. But politicians today are like prostitutes who lie with anyone. Dr Radhakrishnan shouldn't have capitulated so much, I reiterate.

  7. Isn't the admission of receiving “Psychological boost” from the prayer humility itself? :)

    1. But, Pankti, Dr Radhakrishnan is a scientist. A scientist has to choose words carefully, as carefully as in a scientific formula. He is the saint of the present times :)

      More seriously, the answer is NO. Psychological boost is an ego-enhancing trick. Humility is an ego-deflating understanding.

  8. Good post, for all you agnostics, atheists out there. But for me, I would stand by the ISRO director in him seeking a second opinion simply because it seems he doesn’t that much trust his own men and women who made this stuff.

    Also since the director has not disclosed the outcome of this ritual, i’m left to imagine,and this is what would have happened.

    a) God looks at the miniature, tells him to do few re-alignments or improvements and sends him back asking him to come back with a more realistic replica preferably with few diamonds on it(Come on, he is in-charge of Tirupati, he has his expenses)
    b) God is kind of busy and says “shoot it up dude, I’ll take care” to gets rid off him.
    c) God ignores him because he is ISRO director and knows that he is eyeing next on the PMs scientific advisor post then to a union minister and then ultimately will aim for Gods own chair(Btw, he is from God’s own country)
    d) Pujari goofs-up by over-smoking and God fails to get a clear picture, burns his eyes and gets annoyed, curses the rocket to go into Indian ocean
    e) God refuses to intervene till ISRO discloses the full financials of the rocket making exercise
    f) ...

    1. :)
      And God said, "Let the bloody thing come into my realms. I'll handle it. There are the Indras and Ravanas. I'll handle them. I am God. I am happy that you are promoting me."


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