“Scientific temper is of fundamental importance to the acquisition and transfer of knowledge”
Translated by Jai Vipra
August 3, 2019
Narendra Dabholkar was a crucial part of the rationalist and anti-superstition movement in India. Besides his groundbreaking work with the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, Dabholkar composed a number of vital treatises on the subject of fighting blind faith. Written in Marathi, the books break down complex intellectual and scientific arguments to argue for the destruction of superstition and the divisions of caste and religion.
Describing religious superstition as a thousand-armed octopus, Dabholkar's Please Think: Practical Lessons in Developing a Scientific Temper, translated by Jai Vipra, uses stories from the movement’s own work on the ground to explain how violence, hatred and fanaticism are spreading, and what can be done to stop it. The following are excerpts from the chapter "Scientific Temper" of the book.
It was once believed that, with technology changing the face of the world, superstition would die a quiet death. However, that has not happened. People today, whether rich or poor, old or young, are even proud of their lack of scientific temper.
Many people are still living in the clutches of superstition. They spend hours at crematoriums, waiting for a crow to signal freedom for a loved one’s soul. They see omens everywhere, from the breaking of glass to the falling of stones. Why do prime ministers and presidents pay their respects to a fraudulent godman? Why do people toss perfectly good food into sacrificial fires? Why do they still oppose widow remarriage in the name of caste? What does this downfall of scientific temper and reason tell us?
People fall prey to superstition because they are in constant need of external support. It is natural for the exploited to turn to the deceptive aid or solace of superstition. Yet, the end of superstition is not guaranteed by the end of misery, because we also turn to superstition to fulfil our greed. This makes it a never-ending affliction. Hubris, and the fact that people have never considered the scientific merit of their rituals, blinds them to the futility of superstitious beliefs. They convince themselves with the usual maxim: ‘There must be something to it.
The history of all scientific inquiry is that of attempting to understand what we previously couldn’t. Early man watched nature, astounded. He was incapable of comprehending phenomena such as roaring thunder, blinding lightning, pouring rain, vicious forest fires and devastating storms. These were formidable powers, and human well-being appeared to depend on appeasing these powers. This is why the ‘five elements’ were given so much importance in our history. Man was, in a sense, the weakest creature on earth as he battled the elements. He lacked the ability to fly, to survive underwater and in extreme cold. He lacked the strength of the rhinoceros and the agility of the deer. Yet he became the de facto ruler of the world—how?
While other creatures adjust to nature, man lords over it, because knowledge is exclusive to humans. Our brains, which developed along with our opposable thumbs, allowed us to grab things, manipulate them and fashion them into tools. We gained these abilities over thousands of generations. Not only did man acquire knowledge, he also transferred it to subsequent generations through language, making use of his evolved larynx and oral cavity.
Man is faced with thousands of questions in his quest for knowledge: Why are the seas and sky blue? Where do butterflies get their colours from? What causes high and low tides? How many stars can we count with the naked eye? Why does the sun appear larger during sunrise and sunset? Why do fireflies glow at night? Why do mosquitoes hum? What are stainless steel and plastic? The love for knowledge is born of curiosity, and quelling curiosity makes humans happy.
Science, simply, is the practice of knowledge, the search for knowledge. The word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin scientia, derived from scire, which means ‘to know’. The origins of scientific thinking and practice can be found in human intelligence and the practical know-how and skills that are transferred from one generation to the next as civilisation grows.
Building scientific temper and dispelling superstition involves improving one’s ability to make sense of what one experiences. Making sense of experience does not mean understanding experience totally, but untangling our intertwined and often muddied experiences to understand their essence. For instance, if we throw a stone and a feather from the same height, the stone falls faster than the feather. However, if we remove the wind from the equation, both will fall at the same pace. The exceptional ability to understand this is present in very few people. But the knowledge that is limited to a talented few today becomes common knowledge tomorrow. This is the value of scientific thinking.
There are some skills which are unique to humans: digging into our vast experience and making sense of it, representing these insights mathematically and using these formulae to acquire new knowledge. With the help of these tools, knowledge can be disseminated. And scientific temper is of fundamental importance to the acquisition and transfer of knowledge.
The Parliament of India passed the Scientific Policy Resolution in March 1958, a document inspired by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. These were the salient parts:
It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that amenities can be provided to every member of the community[…]Science has led to the growth and diffusion of culture to an extent never possible before[…]it has provided new tools of thought and has extended man’s mental horizon. It has thus influenced even the basic values of life, and has given to society a new vitality and a new dynamism.
In 1975, an Indira Gandhi-led Parliament amended the Constitution to add the fundamental duties of Indian citizens. ‘To develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’ is now a fundamental duty. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s education policy laid great emphasis on the development of scientific temper.
However, it is important to be aware that science is not magic. To say that all questions will be answered by science is to replace God with science. Only people can solve problems. Scientific thinking shows us the appropriate way to solve them. Apart from this, we must remember that making science popular and inculcating scientific temper are separate challenges. For instance, it is beneficial to increase the use of solar energy in our daily lives, but inaugurating the installation of solar energy equipment with rituals using lemons or by cracking open a coconut is inimical to scientific temper. However, making science popular can also be a way to inculcate scientific temper.
Religious faith might be an inherent characteristic of man, but so is critical thinking. For instance, people use this faculty while making business decisions. Businesses fail if all factors are not considered carefully. Scientific thinking is the same careful consideration, when it is used to understand what an incident means, what the different elements in nature are, or what the rules governing various phenomena are. Naturally, these rules are not discernible simply by observing elements and phenomena as they are. It takes a superior level of imagination and intelligence to discern these rules. When a talented scientist proposes her theory, she provides the proof on which it is based and the logical reasoning from which the theory takes shape. To disprove such a theory, one has to show that either the proof or the reasoning is faulty. Else the theory is accepted as true. This is why even religious faith begins to support established scientific theories. When scientific thinking and knowledge gained ground in Europe, religion was not destabilised or made irrelevant. The religious and scientific worlds converged as religion moved closer to science. Elements and phenomena observable by man, and the rules governing them, are in the domain of science. There lies no scope for religion there.
Here are some characteristics of scientific temper:
1. Believing something simply because someone with authority has said it, or because it has been written in a book, is wrong. The ultimate test of truth is observable proof or examination. Adishankaracharya pointed out that we cannot believe fire is cool no matter who says it, in any number of books. In Europe, this is the principal difference between medieval thinking and modern scientific thinking. For medieval philosophers, the Bible, the writings of priests and even the views of Aristotle were beyond dispute. These people and these books, with their logic and arguments, had drawn impermeable intellectual borders. One could not cross these borders even in the pursuit of truth. The real tussle between religion and science was that of the primacy of words and books versus the primacy of observation and examination. This method of knowing was accessible to anyone who was prepared to perform the necessary observations and experiments. This new method had so much success that religion soon had to struggle for ground against science.
2. The world is governed by certain rules, and its existence is not due to any external power. The questions of the universe can be answered by analysing the elements present in it, and man is capable of such analysis. Galileo’s telescope and subsequent discoveries not only added to knowledge, but changed our conception of the world to that of a machine. Instead of trying to solve the ultimate question, science began to solve many smaller questions more and more accurately. Man had long believed that there were rules governing the world, but it took Galileo’s work and scientific temper to understand that these rules were material, not spiritual.
3. The earth is not the centre of the universe. The world was not created for man; indeed, there is no reason for the world to have any purpose at all. Everything happens due to factors internal—and not external—to the universe.
4. Superior knowledge is gained through consistent thought and intelligence, not through revelations. One disadvantage of a society that believes in revealed knowledge is that its intellectuals stop valuing scientific and objective ways of acquiring knowledge. Another effect is inimical to democracy; it creates two classes—those who are knowledgeable and those who aren’t. As revealed knowledge is not accessible to everyone, the have-nots are kept subordinate to the haves, for knowledge becomes the prerogative of the privileged.
5. Unknown powers cannot make anything happen. If there is even a single exception to what ought to be scientific truth, the whole edifice collapses like a house of cards. A ring appearing in Satya Sai Baba’s hand is an unscientific incident because there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, backed by knowledge. Godmen like Satya Sai Baba will have to furnish explanations for these powers.
6. Science is public. Scientific truth is available to all. Anyone who is curious about this truth can test it. Scientific temper is opposed to dogmatism. Dogma is personal; it is inaccessible and untestable.
7. Science is always humble. It never lays claim to the final word. It is religion that asserts, ‘I have understood it all, I have figured the universe out, now do as I say.’ Science believes in testing objects and incidents, and searching tirelessly for solutions to unsolved problems. Scientists are not to be praised for being right; they are to be praised for trying to state principles rigorously and thoroughly. Science remains objective even while it extends or overturns the work of its own giants. For instance, Einstein could finish Newton’s unfinished work or disprove it; Newton does not object to this. If, tomorrow, someone else points out the limitations in the work of both Einstein and Newton, it does not mean they are insulted. Anyone is permitted to test their propositions. All scientific theories are open to challenge. No matter how much progress is made in the realm of science, there are always new questions to answer, new horizons to chase.
Narendra Dabholkar was a rationalist, author and activist from Maharashtra. A trained medical doctor, he founded and was president of the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. Through his writings and speeches, he emphasised the role of rational thinking. He was murdered on 20 August 2013, and triggered by his death, the long-pending Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance was promulgated in Maharashtra four days later. He was posthumously awarded the Padma Shri in 2014.Jai Vipra works on research and advocacy in technology policy, especially on digital monopolies, trade and finance. She is a rationalist and advocates for the rejection of all superstition, and for the use of science and technology for the emancipation of humanity from exploitation. She completed her Masters in Public Policy from the University of Oxford and is currently based in New Delhi.
These are excerpts from Please Think: Practical Lessons in Developing a Scientific Temper written by Narendra Dabholkar, translated by Jai Vipra and published by Context. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
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