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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