Reflections of another rationalist
Sep 03 2013
I had always thought myself to be on the same boat as rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar. However, I am coming to hold the view that scientific temper and rationalism are subject to individual faith deep down one’s consciousness. The self-reflection that started with the boundaries of reason and faith and vishwas (trust) and andhshraddha (superstition) leads to exploration of the philosophical foundations of human endeavours. It begets a question: does god exist – is it vishwas (trust) or andh- vishwas (blind trust)? And then there are issues of birth and rebirth, and heaven and hell and moksha (consequent rewards and punishment by god), and where are these and who manages them?
The issues seemed simple at first and obvious —it was a bipolar world, either one believes in god or does not! With the killing of Dabholkar and andh-vishwas (through the anti-superstition and black magic ordinance of the Maharashtra government), realisation has dawned that the so-called ‘simple’ story involved a large number of intractable variables (known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns) and conflicting viewpoints.
The edifice of human social and civilised coexistence is creating communities based on behavioural boundaries. This is what all religions are supposed to do. In my journey of life, I have come across some of the most knowledgeable and wise religious preachers and thinkers who have had a profound and deep impact on my thinking – providing rich and new perspectives to everyday life issues. On the other extreme are also fraudsters in the garb of saints who peddle rudraksh-malas and trinkets that promise windfalls and overnight prosperity and snake oils for slimming, beauty and weight reduction, and even pure nonsense to gullible masses, claiming crores in yearly revenues on television. Supporting them are film and TV stars of yesteryears, who lend credibility to patently false and unproven claims to the suffering and gullible public.
From a macro-viewpoint, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations develops a thesis that the primary driver of conflict in the world is the clash of religions – competing monotheism and forcible expansionism; believers and non-believers – kafirs and infidels. Add to this the debate on the notion of communism! Which ‘..ism’ is useful for the world? There can be no universal judgment on this – who will win is almost impossible to say.
For us humans, especially those of us in India, uncertainty abounds even about basic necessities of life – roti, kapda and makaan. It is an innate desire to control the uncertain future, especially in matters of unknown-unknowns, such as having progeny, especially son, marriage of daughters, job of an educated unemployed sitting at home, or a disease that is not curing.
Uncertainty is the recipe for the fake godmen (and some statisticians) to come in. There is no way to stop fakesters with millions of followers throughout the country advising their clientele to feed ants and birds at midnight and at unearthly hours amid recitation of mumbo-jumbos.
Anxiety with uncertainty forces people to see patterns everywhere and in everything (it gives us the ability to predict the future). According to physicist Vlatko Vedral, the universe is an intangible sea of information and everything around us can be explained through fleeting statistics. This thought process challenges our ‘scientific’ concepts of matter, time, determinism and reality.
The large hadron collider experiment at CERN near Geneva, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, aims to recreate the conditions of the universe a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Scientists believe that the truth about the Higgs-Boson god’s particle could explain how matter was formed and how it acquired mass, and how the structures on which life depends emerged.
Faith and reason are part of a continuum with huge shades of gray and colour – somewhere on one side are black magic, human and animal sacrifices to propitiate gods (as if they were thirsty of blood, and if so, what kind of gods are these?). On another side are matters of faith leading to placebo effects, self-generating and self-organising the universe (the so-called Santa Fe Group). Shakespeare himself was ambivalent on the issue. In Julius Caesar, a soothsayer cautions “Beware the Ides of March” and later Cassius says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
After all, we see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear – and this is what the faith-healers and godmen do. The problem lies at the gullible crowds and the remedy lies in education and not legislation!
One final point: do ghosts exist? If these are some form of intangible energy, there may be a Kuhn-ian paradigm shift waiting for a revolution in scientific thought. Another unknown-unknown!