Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The two Faces of a Scientist


In response to Karan Thapar’s article which appeared in The Hindu a few days back, (which also inspired my last blog: From myths toward mathematics), an ISRO scientist writes in today’s Hindu: “I am a retired scientist/engineer who worked in one of India’s premier scientific organisations, ISRO, for 38 years.  I believe in Ganesha, and that Shiva exists in Kailash, often riding on his bull.  Can anybody accuse me of having two faces?”

I can and I do, dear scientist.  The myths to which Ganesha and Shiva belong and the science which you make use of for probing into the outer space far beyond Mount Kailash are not compatible.  One destroys the other.  Science replaces myths with facts, and myths have always killed scientists literally and metaphorically.  Don’t forget the scientists who were subjected to inquisition and incarceration during the medieval period.  Don’t ignore the crusade that continues even today against science in other names such as jihad.

But I won’t take away your freedom to believe in whatever you wish to.  That is your right.  I can only question the validity of such a belief.  I can only “accuse” (to use your word) you of being two-faced, serving two masters: irrational belief and rational science.

Irrational, religious beliefs can be psychological buffers that make the sailing appear smooth when it is actually storm-driven.  We all live in a world beset with umpteen problems and would love to have solutions to the problems.  There are scientific solutions but they are limited.  There are psychological solutions of all sorts.  I’m making use of one such psychological solution when I write, especially fiction and poetry.  They call it ‘sublimation’ in psychology.  But I won’t ever claim that my fiction is scientific truth.  Poetic truths are no more scientific than religious truths.  Putting it another way, religious truths are no more rational than the truths in fiction though they may act as Anacin in times of headache.

Yet poetry and fiction contain many truths, more, perhaps, than science contains.  That’s why I won’t take away your right to believe in certain religious truths.  But how “true” are they?

When Shakespeare’s Earl of Kent (King Lear) says, “It’s the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions,” he was speaking a truth which is made clearer elsewhere in the play when another character says, “This is the excellent foppery of the world! that, when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeit of our own behaviour), we make guilty of our disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if they were villains by necessity.”

It is up to each reader to take whichever dialogue as his truth.  The former will shift the blame for our disasters on to the stars which, ISRO should know well, are as innocent as the golden grains of sand on our beaches unless they are polluted by ourselves.

Can a scientist who studies and has also learnt much about the stars and their spaces actually “believe” that “Shiva exists in Kailash, often riding on his bull”?  He can because religious belief is usually an irrational psychological need.  Science is rational.  But human beings are both rational and irrational.  Human emotions are far from being rational.  And the emotions often demand truths beyond the circumscribed realm of rationality.

Yet how irrational can a scientist afford to be?  One who displays such a dichotomy in his outlooks as the scientist mentioned in this blog does display two faces.  The dichotomy in his worldview is stark enough.

The solution would be to analyse the beliefs rationally and scientifically and either give them up as irrational and unscientific or cling to them and accept that one has two faces. 


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19 comments:

  1. This is where i feel that religion in our country is so over powering that it even wipes out logic.

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    1. Religion is very powerful in every country, I think. See the way religion is flourishing in China which had banned religion during Mao's time. Maybe, religion does mean much to many people. I'm not questioning that. I'm saying people should have the integrity to accept their multiple faces.

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  2. Man is not a rational being. He may display any numbers of avatars in our mortal world, but the inner core of his being which sustains him in this mad world is always inviolable and never shared. It is impossible to know how many faces a man actually has. However something good about it is that it generates interesting exchange of views.

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    1. A very sane view, Uppal, and thanks for the view. Every human being may have multiple faces, as you imply. The faces are inevitable, perhaps. But it is also important to understand that one has those paradoxes within.

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  3. Quite a debatable article and topic. Well i agree to what you have mentioned in your article. However I also have faith that God exists and it is more to do with the way I am brought up with religious people around who from childhood made me believe it. But keeping this aside we hear stories of young children remembering things of their past birth or knowledge of this world before being taught to them...is that scientific? whats your take on it?

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    1. I was brought up in the most orthodox Catholic family possible, Shweta. I had a very strict religious upbringing. I studied for priesthood... and ended as an atheist (though theoretically I claim to be an agnostic). My wife is a very religious Catholic whom I take to Church sometimes when the service is in the late evening (though I stand outside the church or return home until the service is over). I tolerate other people's beliefs but don't accept them. I don't accept them because I can't; they go against my "intellectual honesty", as Albert Camus phrased it.

      I don't believe in rebirths and such stories though some such stories have made some ripples in my mind. I'm yet to understand such occurrences. Unless I get substantial evidence for such things, I can't even begin to explore them. I'm of the feeling that they are more likely to be stories than truths...

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  4. I beg to differ. I don't think he has two faces. Scientists are human too, and have a right to believe. Many scientists in Nasa believe that reading bible on the day of launch makes it successful. He is not stating the truth just his beliefs.
    Every man has a right to believe. That is what was wrong with medieval world. People could not abide someone's different belief. Some beliefs are true, some are not.
    Not even all scientific theories are proved. They keep evolving and the myths in science are discarded. I think it is natural for a scientist to have faith because he alone knows that our science is a supposition not a fact. Every theory keeps changing.
    Sorry for such a big comment.

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    1. Kiran, I have acknowledged in the post every individual's (including the scientist's) right to believe whatever he/she wants to believe. Even if my neighbour or close friend believes that his dog is an incarnation of god I won't bother. But if he begins to claim that his belief is a scientific fact, then I bother.

      I have also underscored the limitations of science and reason. I have explicitly stated that they are circumscribed. People long for truths beyond them. I have argued how literature provides truths which science cannot provide. But such truths remain at personal levels.

      I hope I have made myself clear enough.

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  5. :) These are thoughts of a rational mind and hence, it is a debate of Beliefs vs Facts. I would recommend you to read C. Rajagopalachari's translations of Indian epics. To quote one of his thoughts here, "Mythology is as necessary for religion and national culture as the skin and the skeleton that preserve a fruit with its juice and its taste. Form is no less essential than substance. Mythology and holy figures are necessary for any great culture to rest on its stable spiritual foundation." Believing in mythology and superstition are two opposite aspects. We don't know what we don't know but that is true either ways. Human existence is there for more than a million years. Facts gets tampered and sometimes truth becomes fiction and fiction treated as truth. Best is to respect the beliefs and seek your own truth.

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    1. I'm doing precisely what you're suggesting in your last sentence, Roohi. And if everyone does that, the world will be a much more peaceful place, almost a paradise.

      Myths play a significant role in culture not because they contain any absolute truths and not at all because god(s) are real. I will write about this in the next blog - actually I'm running out of time. My next duty begins in 5 minutes' time :)

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  6. I work for ISRO hence, my comments are reserved

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    1. Personal views can be expressed even by ISRO scientists, I am sure.

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  7. Well, religion often blinds the sanity and logic of even the most erudite persons...

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    1. That's the power of religion, Maniparna. Queer, perhaps; psychologically necessary, perhaps.

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  8. A very sensitive topic though a very apt one. When we believe in the unseen force and when we tend to forget is because of duality of human mind. I feel that humans start believing in god at the point of helplessness.The threshold of helplessness driven by the religious beliefs is a questionable point. Beliefs of self and the pursuits of knowledge shall be the defining points. Yet I do enjoy the rituals. Am I Rational? Probably Irrational for some!

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    1. Myths and rituals are psychological tools primarily. Myths were the primitive man's way of dealing with uncertainty. Rituals always accompanied them. They are irrational in the sense one can't find rational justifications or defences for them. But is it possible to live without myths and rituals altogether? I doubt. Isn't economy the biggest myth of our day?

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  9. faith is the right of a citizen

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  10. I differ to agree :)
    Well I think that by not being 'religious' about our 'belief' we can be rational.. One including scientist and the priest should search the truth, do the best and on failure get psychological assistance from the 'belief' that soem one whome we have thought to be sarv-shaktimaan ... now,start again .
    When got a brilliant success, again by hard work and rational thinking and decisions, offer it to that 'supreme force' it to deflate that ego.... Alternatively be humble and honest ALWAYS..... simply.. what's your take ?

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