Scientific Outlook ~ Narendra Dabholkar
Just look around and you will realize the state of affairs in our country. All of our villages have roads and there are plenty of vehicles that run on them carrying modern fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Tractors have reached villages and farmers in remote areas are capable of modern cultivation. Watching TV, we keep abreast of whatever happens anywhere in the world. We can contact a person anywhere on the telephone through the satellite. Science has made all this possible to the villagers. However, with all these facilities made available by science, the villagers in Maharashtra, slaughter, every year, 5 to 7 lakh goats and innumerable chicken in order to fulfill their superstitious vows. Among them are a number of educated people who do not feel what they do is not in accord with their education. It is a well-known fact that to be possessed is a psychic condition, a kind of mental illness; and yet in all Navaratri festivals, on full moon and new moon days and in village fairs, women are possessed by some deity and dance vigorously, oblivious of them. People worship these noisy humming and dancing women taking them to be the deities that possess them. They gleefully exploit the products of science but refuse to adopt the scientific outlook. We use the latest computer; and perform Satyanarayan pooja to inaugurate the computer service. Using the computer and the performing pooja are mutually inconsistent. But we do not mind it because we want to use science but not adopt scientific way of thinking.
Scientific Outlook in the Past
Some people claim that this scientific outlook is not at all new to India; it has been there for ages. What existed in our country in the ancient past is, in fact, a matter for anyone to imagine the way he likes. A reference to the Pushpak Yan in the Ramayan means that we had aeroplanes and Brahmastra means the existence of atom bombs in those days. One does not need to refute these claims because it is more important to analyze why we are in such a dire state today if we had all these technologically advanced appliances in the past? Later on we can examine whether it is sheer imagination or things really existed as is claimed by some. But one thing is clear. We did not have any philosophy in the past that can be compared with what is called scientific outlook today. What we did have was rough estimates, assumptions and lengthy studies based on careful observations and genius of our people in the past. Whatever significant contribution India did make has been recognized by the world. The zero, for example, that has removed a big mathematical obstacle, is an Indian invention. It is attributed to Bhaskaracharya. Another scientist of acclaim, in those days was a chemist, Nagarjun. He invented the process of combining silver and gold with copper. Amarsinha classified the animal and plant kingdoms. Varahamiheer knew that the sun is a star and not a planet even in those days. Copernicus known for the Copernican revolution, that changed the center of the world from the earth to the sun, had said, ‘ the sun seems to be revolving round the earth, but in reality it is just the opposite of it. The sun is the center while the earth revolves round it.’ Aryabhatta initiated this concept in the 5th century, in India. We have honored him by naming our first satellite after him. (Incidentally Aryabhatta was not a Bhatt, i.e., a Brahmin but a Kshatreeya.) People ridiculed his idea. They argued, ‘If the earth revolves, as you say, how do we who, stand on it and perform all sorts of activities not fall off as the earth moves? Again how is it that the birds that leave their nests in the morning can find them on their return in the evening, when the earth has moved ahead?’ The point here is that we did have a process of critical thinking in the 5th and 6th century AD. This wisdom we had attained through observation, experience and discussion and were important and useful. However this process of acquiring knowledge cannot be called scientific outlook. In the next ten to twelve centuries the tradition of critical thinking also almost disappeared. A few good kings, eminent philosophers and littérateurs were born during this period, but no scientists. All debate centered on trivial matters such as who should and should not dine with whom; how should one wear the sacred and mundane dhoti; how many strands should there be in the sacred thread; should one eat onions and garlic during the four sacred months of the year; how drinking cow’s urine and brushing one’s face with its tail give you merit and emancipate your soul and so on. The rest of the world was following a different path. The Portuguese brought the revolutionary art of printing into Goa in 1550. It saved huge time that was required to copy manuscripts by hand. Spreading knowledge would have become very easy, but it took nearly three hundred years for this invention to reach the rest of India.
Development of Scientific Outlook
Scientific outlook was not developed in our society. Since it is essential to have such an outlook, Indira Gandhi amended the constitution. Till then only the rights of a citizen were mentioned in the constitution. With the amendment of 1976, along with the rights, a citizen’s duties were also included in the constitution. One of these duties is, ‘Every citizen should endeavor to spread scientific outlook, critical attitude and humanism in the society.’ The core content of the ‘new education policy’ of Rajiv Gandhi included ‘inculcation of scientific attitude’. Scientific attitude is an important part of our life. Is it something very serious, quite difficult to understand and meant only for a few people? No not at all. All of us use it in our normal life. ? No not at all. All of us use it in our normal life. If I want to go to Bhandara from Satara, to attend a function, I would ask a friend as to how to go about it. He tells me, there is a train from Satara that will take me to Bhandara. When I ask him, on what basis does he say so, he tells me that he remembers having seen it in his dream six months ago. Another friend told me that I would have to go to Pune and take a train from there. When I requested him to substantiate his information, he said, he had heard someone telling his friend, two months ago, at Pune railway station, that he went to Bhandara by a train. A third friend told me that I need not go to Pune since the Maharashtra express can take me directly to Bhandara. ‘How can he ascertain this information?’ I asked him. He replied that 15 days back he had been to Satara railway station where somebody was telling this to somebody else who wanted to go to Bhandara. A fourth friend told me that one has to go to Nagpur by the Maharashtra express, then go to the bus terminus and take a bus going to Bhandara that will reach me there in about two and half hours. I asked him how can I be sure of what he told me, he said he had been to Bhandara for some work by this route only a couple of days back. Now out of these four friends whom should I rely on, the most and on whom the least? The least on the one who saw something in his dream, six months back; may be, a little on the one who heard someone telling about it to another person; I can rely on the third friend a little more who heard about it at the Satara railway station fifteen days ago and the most on the fourth friend who himself had been to Bhandara, just two days ago. We rely to the extent we have reliable evidence. The same practical criterion that we all commonly use is the basis of Scientific Outlook.
We rely to the extent we have reliable evidence. The same practical criterion that we all commonly use is the basis of Scientific Outlook.
Method of Verifying the Evidence
How does one verify evidence? The process of scientific thinking is the method that is used for doing this. The factors that constitute this method are: Observation, Logic, Inference and Verification (this is of three types, viz., direct, repeated and universal), followed by experiment. What comes out of this is the scientific outlook. All the discoveries made so far are the result of some observation. We are taught in school about steam energy discovered by James Watt. The story goes thus. James Watt was engrossed in his thought. A kettle was boiling by his side. When enough steam gathered in the kettle its lid fell off. James put the lid back on the kettle. It fell off again after a little while. A few repetitions set him thinking about the reason for the lid coming off. He did not imagine a ghost in the kettle. He reasoned that since the lid comes off again and again, there must be something inside that pushes it out. This reasoning resulted in the discovery of energy contained in the steam, which led to the industrial revolution in Europe. Another example: we celebrate 28th February as National Science Day, because C.V. Raman’s discovery of ‘Raman effect’ was published in world-renowned magazine ‘Nature’. Later he won the Nobel Prize for it. How did he discover it? He was going to England in a liner. Every day he used to go to the deck and see the deep blue sky above and the deep blue sea below. He was curious to know why. Now he could have praised God for creating the beautiful blue sky above and the beautiful sea below. But, he did not do that. He started reasoning and discovered a novel scientific truth. Thus, scientific outlook starts from observing phenomena and asking oneself the question ‘why’.
Now one cannot expect to prove everything by observation. Suppose you have lost your way in a jungle in the evening. You need to reach some small settlement before night. Since you do not know where such a cluster of hutments can be found, you would not know which way to go. Then if you see some smoke going up at a dozen places by the side of a hill, you think this may be an indication of a settlement and you take the path towards it. What is the basis of your choice? You have not seen any men or a settlement or their fireplaces. But you know that wherever firewood is used for cooking, there is smoke and in the jungle, firewood is used for cooking. Evening is the time for cooking dinner and if food is being cooked in every hutment, there would be a dozen places from where the smoke can rise. So you deduce that there must be people living there and they are preparing their dinner. On the basis of this logic you proceed in that direction and your deduction turns out to be correct. Scientific outlook consists of firstly observation, secondly reasoning (or logic) where observation is not possible and thirdly inference. Let me explain the third constituent, inference. A friend of yours, who is a late riser, suggests that you accompany him for a walk at sunrise next morning. He promises to come to your house very early next day. Since you know he is incapable of doing this, would you argue with him, ‘Oh, you want to go for a walk at sunrise, but how are you sure that the Sun will rise tomorrow?’ No you won’t. But how does one know that the Sun is going to rise tomorrow? When we give appointments several days in advance, how do we know that those days are going to break on this earth? We deduce this from our knowledge that the Sun has been rising regularly in the morning for the last 460 crore years. It has not taken any leave at all. If it does that even for a day, it can cause a permanent “leave” for all the living things on earth. Since the Sun has been rising regularly so far, you infer that it will do so even tomorrow and plan to go for a walk in the morning. This is inference.
The next factor is verification. We have already seen that it consists of three parts: verification, repeated verification and universal verification. What is verification? Adi Shankaracharya had said, even if hundred wise men tell you that fire is cool, will you believe it? No, you will not. If those hundred wise men say, ‘not only do we say it, but it is also written in the book’, you would reply, ‘I do have a lot of respect for all of you but the direct evidence, my own experience, tells me that if I put my hand in fire it will burn.’ Verification by direct experience is an important part of scientific outlook. Now we will see what is repeated experience. Someone tells you that using a certain enchanted ring will secure employment for the user within one month. You ask him to give you proof. He then says that he had used it and later his neighbor had used it and both got jobs within a month. What you should argue with him, is that if the same experience is repeated a large number of times, then we should make ten thousand such rings and distribute them among ten thousand unemployed youth. If they all get jobs within a month then we can accept that this ring does have some supernatural power of securing jobs for the unemployed. We cannot draw conclusions from just one or two examples. For drawing conclusions you need a very large number of such examples. This is the crux of the scientific outlook. Again this experience or verification has to be universal. It cannot be science without being universal. If you say that only the residents of that particular city will get jobs on using the ring, it will not be acceptable as scientific truth. If the ring really is capable of getting a job for the user, any body anywhere should get a job within a month on using it. If a medicine is developed for a particular disease, it will cure any person suffering from that disease any where in the world. When the law of gravitation was proved, it could be applied anywhere in the world to verify it. Thus scientific outlook is founded on direct verification that is repeated in very large number and is universally applicable.
Experiment is the last important constituent of scientific outlook. Anybody should be able to verify scientific truths by conducting required experiments. Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. It means that water will boil at this temperature anywhere in the world, be it Bombay, Calcutta, London or Madras. If it boils at a lower or higher temperature at any place, you have another universal law that explains why and to what extent the boiling point of water rises or drops. It is not that water will boil at 90 degree centigrade in Mumbai and save fuel because the residents of Mumbai are very religious, while the residents of Moscow being atheist water boils there at 110degrees centigrade. One can verify it by experiment. So observation, the question ‘why so’ based on the observation, then reasoning or logic where observation is not possible, followed by inference and verification and lastly experiment are the steps that build the scientific outlook. There is a lot of value content too in the scientific outlook. It tells how a human being should look at life in general. The value content dwells in the method of scientific thinking.
Independent Movement to Eradicate Superstitions
Every body feels that with the spread of science education and modernization, superstitions will automatically disappear by and by. No special efforts are needed to do that. Say, for example from a totally dark room we cannot dig out the darkness. Just light a candle and the darkness will vanish. A petromax will make it brighter, while a tube light will make it brighter still. When the day breaks out and as the sun reaches the zenith the room is flooded with light from all sides. Darkness has no room there. Superstition means the darkness of ignorance. So it goes without saying that with the light of knowledge and science the darkness of ignorance i.e., superstition will simply melt away. Had this concept materialized, we would have been the happiest people for, in that case, such a huge movement would not have been necessary at all.
Originally published by Dr. Narendra Dabholkar on antisuperstition.org. It has been republished here to propagate rationalist thinking and as a mark of solidarity with his beliefs. Do visit the site for more thought provoking rationalist commentary.