Ethics cannot solve the problem of superstition! Is Sarukkai’s claim that it can, devoid of ethics?

Since, our Independence seven decades ago, most everyone has pointed out that India is lagging behind in many fields by, perhaps, decades. Most of the world organized a ‘March for Science’ in April 2017 and Indian scientists caught up rather quickly by marching for Science in August 2017, within a few months. One Director of a CSIR lab used the pretext of potential violence to order (or was it an advice?) all his staff not to join the March.

Many scientists participated in this and it was covered in national and international news. Sundar Sarukkai, perhaps the only philosopher of Science in India, currently at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore wrote a commentary in The Hindu proclaiming that the March for Science was unscientific. (1) We need more philosophers of Science in India and perhaps we need more in many major fields of Science as well. Sarukkai’s reasons for calling the march unscientific did not appeal to some scientists from India and two of them wrote a long response. Rahul Siddharthan’s response came in Wire (2) and Felix Bast (3) put it in his blog. A social scientist also disagreed and pointed out that the March for Science was needed even for social science (4). Wire offered a chance for Sarukkai to respond to Siddharthan’s counter and published it too.  Sarukkai’s response was titled “To Stop Superstition, We Need Viable Ethical Perspectives, Not More Science” (5).

I contend that viable ethical perspectives cannot by itself counter superstition. Let us look at what ‘viable ethical perspective’ means and see if there is any hope for it to counter superstition. Let me use Google dictionary for ease of use. The first word ‘viable’ is simple enough and it means ‘workable, practicable, feasible’ and so on. I am convinced that most every reader of this article would know what ‘viable’ means. The third word ‘perspective’ means among other things ‘point of view’. It is surprising how a philosopher of science chose to put this as a viable alternative to Science to counter superstition. Obviously, points of view will differ. Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘perspective as a particular way of thinking’. Clearly, different people can have different perspectives! This will certainly not help in clearing ‘superstition’ and it can only help sustain superstition.

Now let us look at the second word ‘ethical’. This seems to be the most important word suggested by Sarukkai to counter superstition instead of ‘more science’. Perhaps he believes that the advances in Science are already enough to counter superstition and we do not need any more Science. I hope he did not mean ‘ethics’ instead of Science. Though most everyone would have heard about this word as well, let us look at what ‘ethics’ means. According to Google ‘ethics is a branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles’. Could this help in removing superstition? Let us first define ‘superstition’. According to Google, It is any belief or practice that is irrational. It is not obvious to me how ‘following any moral principles’ can stop ‘irrational belief’? Let me give you some examples.

One of the most widely held superstitious belief was that ‘earth was flat’. Aryabhatta, according to the Wikipedia page found today, has estimated the circumference of earth as 39,968 km, very close to the value accepted today, 40,075 km (5). Aristotle had also argued that earth was spherical.  I am not sure if we still have human beings who hold this belief. It agrees with what one can see in front of their eyes. If someone believes this, (s)he cannot be held immoral for propagating this view. (S)he is not deceiving or cheating anyone when claiming earth is flat. For others, (s)he is spreading a superstition as they know the fact that earth is not flat.

If this sounds like one of the tales from a distant past, I accidentally stumbled on a TV show recently, in which one Hindu scholar was comparing someone talking to the forefathers who have long been dead with someone using a mobile phone and talking to someone else living in America. He mentioned that in both cases we cannot see how our voice reaches them. I did not think his comparison was fair or scientific. He seemed pretty convinced with this analogy and offered it as a proof that we could communicate with our forefathers who are no longer alive. While I can understand, with Science, how a person from here can talk to another living person in America using a mobile phone, I do not know how to understand some one talking to his/her dead relative! I certainly would neither claim I understand everything nor would say if I don’t understand something it must be wrong. That scholar seems very convinced and clearly believed what he said. I do think it is a superstitious belief. If that scholar believes what he says, how can I say he is being immoral or unethical? If I find a way to prove or disprove his claim scientifically, it can convince many. If he believes what he says, ethics or moral would never stop him from doing this.

It so happens that a solar eclipse is expected today, on 21 August 2017! There have been a lot of superstitious believes about the solar eclipse (7). Science has dispelled many such superstitions. I am not sure if ethics could have ever done what Science did. I have been a Scientist by career and I do not claim Science will solve every problem humanity faces. That is not even the objective of Science. Science, in my view, is a pursuit to understand nature. Such understanding can be used or abused by scientists and other humans. When it is abused, those who abuse are lacking in moral/ethics. As far as superstitions are concerned, Science can dispel it with understanding. Could we have scientists who understand some things and do not reveal it to others? Yes, of course. However, by way of practice, Science encourages everyone to share what they have learned. As it is commonly known, Science encourages ‘publish or perish’ culture. Wouldn’t the Philosopher of Science, Sundar Sarukkai, be able to see the difference? I would think he can.

Sarukkai argues about scientists having different perceptions about how science is practiced. Let us look at ethics and morals. There is no common code of ethics or morals accepted by various societies now. Even within a same society, ethics and morals change with time. In the past, religion defined morality and we have had many of them. For example, Tamils think of Thirukkural as an important book prescribing ethics and morals for life. One of the Kural mentions that a wife who treats her husband as God will be powerful to demand and get rain from nature when she wants. It was perhaps written more than 2000 years ago. Today this Kural could be thought of us promoting patriarchy and suppressing women and dare I say, it is immoral and unethical. Bhagavad Gita talks about caste system, which I think is a very immoral system. It is indeed surprising to see that Sarukkai thinks ethics can fight superstition and not more science.

Today, most every nation has a constitution and rule of law. For the rule of law, ignorance is not a defense. Whether you are aware of it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. Whether you like it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. For example, I think it is silly to play the National Anthem before every movie and I hope the Supreme Court applies its mind soon and reverses it. However, until it does, whether I like it or not, if I go to a movie theater and do not stand up when the National Anthem plays, I can be booked for violating the rules. What about ethics and morals? Where is one supposed to find them? While some one ignorant of a law may do something illegal and face punishment if caught, ignorance of knowledge is not illegal or immoral or unethical. Refusing to learn is not illegal or immoral or unethical. A believer can choose to say Darwin is missing the grand design and refuse to read his book or the major advances in Science since his book. It is not illegal, immoral or unethical.

Many years ago, when I was a faculty in IIT Kanpur, one Professor from an Engineering Department of IIT Delhi, gave a talk with the title ‘How to solve all the problems in the World?’ As I was curious, I went to the talk. His advice was that we all read Bhagavatam and accept what it says in resolving conflicts.  At the end of the lecture, I told the speaker: What you have given us today is a way to create problems, not solve problems.

Einstein’s quote on science and religion is quoted often: ”Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. Following Sarukkai’s suggestion of ethics as an alternative to fight superstition, let me rephrase it: Science without Ethics is lame, Ethics without Science is blind! You cannot fight superstition without Science. By suggesting that ethics can solve the problem of superstition, is Sarukkai being unethical? He would be if he is spreading this message without believing it and misleading the reader. Lying would be considered immoral in every society or country, I assume. If he believes it, I cannot call him unethical! He is certainly being unscientific!

References (All links were accessed on 21 August 2017 and found to be working):

  1. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-march-from-yesterday/article19459043.ece
  2. https://thewire.in/166906/sundar-sarukkai-march-for-science-scientific-temper-fundamentalism/
  3. http://flexyble.blogspot.in/2017/08/what-construes-pseudoscience.html
  4. https://thewire.in/167673/sundar-sarukkai-march-for-science-superstition-lynching/
  5. https://thewire.in/169312/march-for-science-scientific-method-sociology/
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryabhata
  7. https://www.bustle.com/p/11-creepy-superstitions-people-have-had-about-solar-eclipses-throughout-history-77240
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Science and Religion (humanity!): Gravity and Love

Some of the recent happenings, which influenced me significantly, led me to think about gravity and love. While I cannot mention all those things in this blog, I should point out two. One is the last blog I wrote about the borders in Science and Nations (1). Many have discussed about the border between Science and Religion. Another is a recent article published in the Journal Judgment and Decision Making titled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound b—s— . (2)

I am almost convinced that many would have compared gravity and love and I am writing this blog without doing a Google search on these words together or a search in science or philosophical Journals. So this is my views, not influenced by others as yet. I started thinking about this analogy when I saw the authoritative article on pseudo-profund b—s—. I am reproducing one statement from the abstract:  “Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge b—s— statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief)”. Now you see why I thought of religion. This article appears to be an empirical study to understand why some people believe in statements that clearly appear to be ‘b—s—‘ to a Scientist or perhaps, a rationalist. Such empirical studies are accepted as good scientific procedures! The authors point out that “Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on b—s—.” Such justifications are important for a scientific investigation on any problem.

Though all of us know gravity, we still do not know how gravity works. For example, if we have to take a mango (let me use a fruit that is native to where we live) from a tree, you can get a really long rod or tie together small rods with ropes, and tie a scythe at the end. Have a ladder or stool or go to the rooftop. Use this rod to reach the mango and cut it off from the branch by using the scythe. I have seen my father in law doing it in their house many times. Once the  mango is cutoff from the branch, it falls down. Gravity has helped us now. Mango was bound to the branch physically and a scythe was used to cutoff the link. Why does the mango fall down and not stay where it was or go up, when it’s link is cutoff! Of course, we all know it is due to gravity now.

We know electric and magnetic fields and we know that the opposite charges (poles) attract and like charges (poles) repel. Most students in physics may have done some experiments to look at the line of forces acting on magnetic materials. How does the earth pull the mango down? There are some speculations about ‘gravitons‘ which are hypothetical elementary particles that mediate the force of gravity. The wikipedia page on graviton looks reasonable (3). Basically we have a rope made of gravitons, that we cannot see, and it has pulled the mango down. Beyond this invisible gravitons, we know how gravity works. We can do experiments, make predictions, others can repeat our experiments and we all come to the same conclusions. Though, ‘graviton‘ cannot be seen, gravity is science!

Now let us look at how two people are attracted. We say they are in ‘love’ with each other. May be some one has done an empirical study, like the study on b—s— and come to conclusions about which two individuals may fall in love. I am not aware of them.’Love at first sight’ is a phrase commonly used. It is there from our Ramayanam (for Tamils, Ramayana for others) and the great poet Kamban says ‘அண்ணலும் நோக்கினார்  அவளும் நோக்கினாள்’ (‘annalum nokkinaar avalum nokkinaal’ which translates to ‘Rama looked at Sita and Sita looked at Rama at the same time). They fell in love and we have an epic. Do we have ‘lovons‘ that was mediating between Rama and Sita? Though they both fell in love, their marriage happens after Rama wins her in a contest and it was arranged.

I come from a background in which arranged marriage is still common and ‘love’ starts post marriage and it has worked very well for the most part. From the day of marriage, husband and wife live together and ‘love’ or affinity develops over a period of time. As I knew this would be the case in my life, and I really didn’t want to challenge this practice, I have somehow ensured that I would not possess any ‘lovons‘ or in case a girl were to send ‘lovons‘ to me, I would be transparent. It seems like, this attractive force of ‘love’ which could operate through the ‘imaginary particle lovon‘ can be controlled by humans, who have been conditioned to grow in a certain way. I do realize that, irrespective of the surroundings, some individuals can transmit and receive ‘lovons‘ and when they say they are in ‘love’, we cannot ask them to prove it. We have to accept it. I am not aware of any experiments that can be done to measure the ‘forces’ operating between them.

As with gravity, love is also attractive. If we have only attractive forces, it will be fatal and I am sure, many would have heard this term ‘fatal attraction’. When the mango falls down due to gravity, it will be crushed. We need to counter it with some repulsive forces, such as a cushioned bag, to collect the mango when it falls so that mango is not hurt and then taste the king of fruit. Even as I write, my love for mango is kindling my emotions and my mouth started watering. My love for mango started working. The gravitational force between earth and moon is balanced by the centrifugal force as they revolve around themselves and also the sun, resulting in a stable orbit. Between two people who are attracted by love, there has to be a ‘repulsive force’, one can see this as the space required for the individuals to exist independently, for a stable relationship. If this space is not provided, ‘love’ would not be enough to hold them together.

This article on ‘profound b—s—‘ concludes that those who are religious tend to accept ‘profound b—s—‘ more readily than others. Every religion promotes love. I come from a ‘shaivite’ family (people worshiping Shiva’ and we say ‘அன்பே சிவம்’ (anbae sivam, which means Shiva is nothing but love’) Christ said ‘love thy neighbour’. I am not sure if scientists will ever be able to explain the forces of ‘love’. That is for philosophers, I suppose. If only we can find ways to promote love, world will be a great place. We may never be able to discover ‘lovons‘ but we know love is real, may be not scientific. We may or may not be able to discover ‘gravitons‘ but we know gravity is real and scientific.

Perhaps we should stop comparing science and religion. Perhaps we should start giving equal emphasis for science and social science in schools and colleges. Without a doubt, religion has been used to exploit people and and kill each other as well. Religion does not encourage questioning and science does. Faith by definition cannot be questioned. Science starts by questioning what we observe. Ideally religion should promote love and science could be indifferent to this. Did Einstein say “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind’? (4) I have also heard people saying ‘love is blind’.

  1. https://earunan.org/2016/09/20/borders-in-science-and-nation-the-need-for-them-and-the-need-to-have-a-healthy-disrespect-for-them/ Accessed on 24 September 2016.
  2. http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.html Accessed 24 September 2016
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graviton Accessed 24 September 2016.
  4. 4. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins161289.html Accessed on 24 September 2016

 

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Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_period Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaniyan_Pungundranar Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/611
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/105/07/0892.pdf
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at http://www.curtwittig.com/wp-content/uploads/curt-wittig-autobio.pdf
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