Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Scientific Temper

Science is progressing at breakneck speed. The notion that man can understand the rules of nature and use them for his own benefit is a recent one in history, and we are seeing the stunning results of this notion. On the one hand, science informs us of the structure of subatomic particles; on the other, it shows us the wonder of supernovae in the sky. There is no doubt that massive airplanes, orbiting satellites, the radio and television beaming the whole world into our rooms, and global communications technology have made the world a very small place. The study of single-celled organisms has helped medicine progress leaps and bounds. High yield variety seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and modern farming techniques have, for the first time, brought hunger into the realm of humanly solvable problems. Communications and information technology are growing daily and at mind-numbing speeds.

It is imperative that students in our society receive an excellent education in science. Not only will this make our future scientists, technicians and skilled workers better, but it will also help inculcate faith in science among the people. More capable scientists and technicians will aid in our industrial, agricultural, medical and overall economic growth. We believed that because of this growth and of the people’s participation in this growth, many harmful traditional rituals would see their last days, and there would not be any need for a separate anti-superstition movement. In reality, there are several people who, despite living in a world of scientific achievement, stay miles away from cultivating a scientific temper. Indeed, they are proud of doing so. I see them follow superstitions in their own way, everywhere, regardless of religion, caste and class: from the tribal in his forest to the industrialist making international deals from his Mumbai high-rise; from the just maturing seven year old to the mature seventy year old. And I am left wondering if there is something wrong with the way we define progress.

People make promises to god; they become indebted and sacrifice animals to fulfill those promises. They waste many an hour at the crematorium, waiting for a crow to signal the freedom of a loved one’s soul. They consult tantriks and charlatans, suspecting the hand of the devil in psychological problems. They see signs everywhere: falling stones, clothes catching fire, glass breaking. They attempt to speak through the dead through séances. They take important decisions based on lifeless horoscopes, attributing actions to destiny. They perform yajnas, toss good food into fire, for everything, from the birth of a son to the welfare of the world. They disapprove of widow remarriage for reasons of caste. Even some gynecologists consider themselves impure while menstruating. Governors call for pujas when the rains are scarce and Presidents and Prime Ministers pay their respects to a fraud godman whose skills extended to the trick of pulling objects out of thin air, but not to preventing his own helper’s murder. Which century are we living in? What does this defeat of the age of science tell us? Why did it transpire, why is it still happening?

People fall prey to superstition because they need constant support. It is natural that they will turn to the deceptive but attractive aid of superstition for momentary relief from their agitation, exploitation and instability. It is logical to argue that when situations change and the need for support ceases to exist, the belief in superstition will also be eradicated, but the reality is different. It is true that superstition is a crutch in tough times, but we also turn to superstition to fulfill our greed, and this makes it a never-ending phenomenon. Hubris blinds people not only to the actual possibility of them acquiring what they want, but also the futility of the blessings of godmen, the rings of kings, the tantrik’s mantras, auspicious times and yajnas. This is because the scientific realisation that there is not even an iota of validity in any of these solutions has never formed in most people’s minds. On the contrary, a mindset of “There must be something to it that I don’t understand” is created. Indeed, it is nurtured. The history of all scientific discoveries is that of attempting to understand what we previously couldn’t.

Early man watched nature, astounded. He was incapable of understanding the roaring thunder, the blinding lightning, pouring rain, vicious forest fires and devastating storms. It looked simple – these were formidable powers, and people’s well-being appeared to depend on pleasing them. This is why the “five elements” were given so much importance. Battling with these elements, in a sense man was the weakest creature on earth. He lived in caves and ate raw meat. He could neither fly like the sparrow nor survive underwater like the fish. Nature had not equipped him to run like the deer or attack like an antelope. He had neither the strength of the rhinoceros not the tusks of the elephant. He lacked the sharp teeth and claws of the lion and the tiger. There was no fur coat to protect him from the biting cold nor did he have the ability to leap from tree to tree. Despite all this, seemingly weak man became the de facto ruler of the world – how?

Knowledge is exclusive to humans. Other organisms made adjusted to nature; man lords over it. This progress was made over thousands of generations. The human brain developed along with our ability to grab things with our hands thanks to our opposable thumbs and to make tools. Humans created language, nurtured it, made it grow. An evolved larynx and oral cavity are peculiar to man. Not only did man acquire knowledge, he also transferred it through language. The use of his hands and tools, the development of language and of reason propelled man towards breathtaking progress.

Science is the practice of knowledge, the ceaseless search for knowledge. The word “science” has been derived from the Latin scientia, derived from scire, which means “to know”. The pure love for knowledge is the propeller for science, and it was born through unending curiosity about the universe. Man has always been, and is, curious about the many happenings in the world. 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 is stainless steel, plastic? Man is faced with thousands of questions in the quest to quell his curiosity through knowledge. Quelling this curiosity satisfies man, makes him happy. The pursuit of happiness, of course, comes naturally to man.

The origin of scientific thinking and practice can be found in human intelligence and intergenerational transferred knowledge. Practical know-how and skills are transferred from one generation to the next as civilisation grows. For nearly one lakh years after his origin on earth, man was but uncivilised. He lived in caves, gathered and hunted for food, and clothed himself in hide and bark.

Agriculture and with it, a stable life in one place began around 8,000 years ago. Man began making clothes from cotton and wool. He made houses from stone. He started using iron, wood and clay. Gradually he started using fire to cook food and logs to float on the water. Primeval ideas about the world and about unknown powers governing the working of the world also began at this time. Employing the use of logic to attempt to pin down the causes of natural phenomena happened mainly through technology at this time, and the tendency to use experiences and observations happened mainly in artisanship. There were, however, sporadic attempts to bring the two together.

Man’s reasoning was wrong too, several times. He beat the drum during eclipses, expecting the sound to chase away the demon come to swallow the sun like it chased away the animals. Thunder was much louder than his stone mill, so he reasoned that someone in the sky was grinding grain in a very large stone mill. Lightning looked like the crack of a charioteer’s whip; naturally he reasoned that lightning signaled that Indra’s chariot was traversing the skies. When sudden madness gripped someone he knew to be sane before, he found it reasonable to assume that a demonic power had taken control of that person. Mistakes are always made in the pursuit of any kind of knowledge; these were no different. Indeed, they are inevitable for the attainment of perfection. It was difficult for man to see or reason differently with the extremely limited information at his disposal.

The store of knowledge grew due to curiosity and necessity. Man started studying the celestial bodies to create a calendar for farming. In Egypt, the flooding of the Nile inundated the fields and made them fertile. Some people noticed that when particular stars shone in a particular part of the sky, the Nile would flood, and this proved to be helpful in planning the agricultural calendar. The origin of botany lies in the search for medicines. The study of chemistry developed with the interest in alchemy.

In India in the third and fourth century AD, the famous chemist Nagarjun’s works Rasaratnakar and Kalkaputatannam were popular. These described the compounds (and the uses of these compounds) that could be created from sulphur, mercury, copper, silver and gold. Interestingly, these books also contain descriptions of magic and miracles. The famous astronomer Varahamihira also lived during this time. His book Bruhat Samhita contains information about the sun and the planets. In the same period, the lexicographer Amar Singh has observed the habits, characteristics and reproductive patterns of various species of plants and animals and has attempted to classify them. The discovery of zero was made in India. The works of Aryabhatta and Bhaskaracharya are rich with important theories in mathematics and astronomy. However, from the eight century onwards, the tendency to think the guru’s teachings were the truth increased and the tendency to acquire knowledge decreased.

All of this is man’s doing before the advent of modern science. The use of modern scientific techniques including observation, logical thinking and experimentation faced two main hurdles. First, skilled and hardworking artisans lacked the training and hence ability for formal logical thought. Second, man’s understanding of natural phenomena was shaky at best, and was often muddied by preconceived notions. The core of science is objective reasoning. Before the 15th century, science was dependent on opinions that were shared by royalty and religion. This not only stemmed scientific progress but also created several misconceptions about nature in society, for instance the notion that the earth is at the centre of the universe. Or, that god created man. “Science” in those days supported the idea that the sun and the moon were created to make lit days and cool nights available to man. Science was pushed to corroborate the teachings of the church and the Bible on the one hand and the church-approved works of Aristotle on the other. This led to a lot of intellectual gymnastics within the discipline. Aristotle talks about the final cause and efficient cause of every action, the final cause being the intention. In many ways the final cause of analysis in science in those times was the desire to align with the views of the church.

It is believed that scientific temper as we know it today began in Europe in the 16th century. However, the scientific method is but a part of it. Its core is in fearlessly challenging the establishment thought at the peril of one’s life. It started before 399 AD, when Socrates was prosecuted in Athens. He was accused of not believing in the god the whole country believed in, and leading the youth away from traditional values. It was not that Socrates did not believe in God, but he believed that no one ought to accept any principle, even the existence of God, without subjecting it to reason. He taught his disciples that knowledge was the greatest virtue and the lack of knowledge the greatest vice. The existence of God or divine powers was not necessary for the carrying out of governance. He argued that laws and policies ought to be made based on historical and sociological experience. It was inevitable that faith in the existing laws would dwindle after they were subjected to reason. Fundamentalists found this hypocritical. Socrates was dragged to court and was sentenced to death through poisoning. In societies where people have stood up against their kith and kin and against society to defend their ideas born through reason, the reach of superstitions has reduced and the doors of scientific progress have opened. Socrates started the tradition of courting death for one’s views. This tradition disappeared for a few centuries and with it, Europe’s progress, too, stalled. World history shows us that the more individuals are allowed to think, reason and acquire knowledge freely, the more society progresses. When independent thinking and research dies, society goes through a dark age. This is what transpired in Europe from the fourth century to the seventh.

The willingness to die for reason and scientific temper began in Europe 700 years ago: with it came the dawn of the Renaissance. That struggle, however, was morbid and short-lived. Roger Bacon (1214-1294) pledged when he was but a student, that he would not die before he had and experimented on Aristotle’s sayings and theories. He preached that the truth could not be found in the holy books or through superstition, but only through the use of intelligence, experience, deliberation and experimentation. Since he was a friar in the Franciscan order, the members of his order did not put him to death but sentenced him to house arrest. The man who wanted to enlighten the world with knowledge spent the rest of his life in darkness. In India, after the Charvakas and the Buddha, and in the two thousand years before Western thought made its way here, the clarion call “Will you think?”, putting the caller at risk of his life for encouraging the populace to think, was not raised. Skills and knowledge transferred through tradition started drying up and no one mourned them. Whose house is it proper to dine at? When is it appropriate to eat onions? Should vermillion paste be applied horizontally or vertically? How many loops of the holy thread must we make? Does good fortune come from being touched by a cow’s tail or does the soul find peace by drinking cow urine? These were the important questions of debate. In this convoluted discussion, this meaningless exercise, this futile tradition, this exploitative religion, the common man was left motionless. We could only boast of some superhuman kings and a few texts on philosophy during this period. During the same time, Galileo’s telescope and the theories and discoveries that resulted from it took Europe by storm.

Galileo provided a strong confirmation for Copernicus’s views. He brought the assertions of the holy books into question. He was examining Aristotle’s assertions. The invention of the telescope was a disruption. Copernicus knew that to prove his theory of a heliocentric universe, he would have to prove that Venus had phases like the moon. His inability to prove this had pitted the scientific world against him. Galileo proved this through his telescope, and also that the moon had hills and the sun had spots. People found these revelations shocking and the religious leaders were terrified. To accept Galileo’s revelations would mean to accept flaws in the work of the Creator. Teachers in catholic institutions of learning were forbidden from mentioning the spots on the sun. This ban was in force in some universities for  many centuries. The clergy were pressurised to excommunicate mathematicians because it was thought that geometry was the devil’s science and mathematicians were heretics. A committee of theologians discussed the subject of astronomy and deduced two conclusions from certain passages in the Bible.

“The notion that the sun is stationary and does not revolve around the earth is absolutely wrong and openly challenges the Holy Scripture. The notion that the earth revolves around the sun is preposterous and contrary to the religious view.”

Then the Pope ordered Galileo to depose before the Roman Catholic Inquisition. The Inquisition ordered him to renounce his assertions. On the twenty third of February, 1616, Galileo pledged in writing and verbally to not support the Copernican view of the universe, and was granted freedom. This incident happened nearly 16 years after Bruno was burnt alive.

After this, all books that proclaimed that the earth moved in the skies were banned.

And yet, Galileo was hopeful. In 1623, his friend Cardinal Barberini became the Pope and was called Pope Urban VIII. Feeling slightly more secure, Galileo started writing a book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The book technically did not side with either Ptolemy’s or Copernicus’s view, but the way it was written provided passionate endorsement to Copernicus’s view. This exquisite book was read widely and enthusiastically all over Europe.

The religious leaders were agitated once again. Galileo was silenced heavily. “The idea of a mobile earth is foolish, absurd and condemnable. That the earth is stationary is a holy notion. Conjectures about the immortality of the soul, the existence of God and his image in man may be forgivable, but proposing that the earth revolves around the sun is not forgivable.” Such were the allegations and opinions against Galileo.

He was again ordered to stand before the Inquisition. He pleaded that he could not travel from Florence to Rome owing to illness but this was not accepted. His friend the Pope threatened to send his own doctor and to bring him to Rome in chains if his illness was found to be not serious. Galileo then made his way to Rome on his own. He was told that if he confessed to his crimes and repented, he would be subjected to imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition, and would be asked to repeat a certain prayer about repentance every week for the next three years.

Because this softer punishment would only be meted out if he confessed, Galileo fell to his knees in front of the Inquisition and repeated what they wanted him to say. “I renounce these mistakes and incorrect views. I believe they are abhorrent and pledge that I will write or speak nothing that may hold me suspect of heresy. If I find any heretic declaring that the earth moves, I will condemn him in front of the Inquisition.” He pledged the renunciation of his views by the Bible. Later, the generous Inquisition commuted his sentence from formal imprisonment to house arrest. All his movements were restricted. He was not permitted to meet his family and friends. He went blind in 1617 and passed away in 1642.

Eventually, however, the era of science dawned. The scientific method came to be known as the only effective and appropriate way to acquire knowledge. No one claims that it solves all problems swiftly. Nevertheless, the scientific method helps us pinpoint causation, formulate questions, keep the process of answering questions on the right track and maximises the possibility of finding the answers tomorrow that we did not find today, while staying on the same track.

Today, it is as if teaching science, using technology and having scientific thinking are mutually exclusive. Even people with degrees in scientific fields exhibit this characteristic, and some people even use their knowledge of science to spread unscientific thinking.

Thinking logically about naturally phenomena, and appending experience and experimentation to this thinking, began in the thirteenth century. Scientists have always aimed to control factors in order to create accurate experiments. Science is born through the use of an exact process assisted by observation and logic. Some people call science “specialised knowledge” but knowledge itself is defined as information acquired through logically sound means and conclusions derived from such information. In science, reasoning and experimentation are interdependent: reason is subjected to the test of experimentation and then firm conclusions are drawn, laws are derived.

There are many different ways of looking at the questions of the universe, its creation, growth, and the position of human beings in the universe. They can be classified into those that are based on what is and can be known, and those that are not. Scientific thinking falls under the former category. Materialism and worldliness are philosophies propounded on this basis. On the other hand, spiritualism, godliness and divinity are philosophies derived from the latter category. Social norms and teaching methods today are also under the influence of this category.

To improve one’s ability to make sense of what is experienced is building scientific temper and dispelling superstition. Making sense of experience does not mean understanding experience totally, but untangling our usually muddied and intertwined experiences to understand their essence. For instance, if we throw a stone and a feather from a 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 talent to understand this is present in very few people. But the knowledge that is limited to talented people today becomes common knowledge tomorrow. This is the value of scientific thinking.

Digging into our vast experience and making sense of it, representing those insights mathematically, and using these formulae to acquire new knowledge are skills unique to humans. With the help of these tools, knowledge spreads everywhere. Acquiring knowledge, and more so transferring knowledge, is a human specialty. Scientific temper is of fundamental importance to this 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 important 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 and new vitality and a new dynamism.”

In 1975, an Indira Gandhi-led Parliament amended the Constitution to add 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 emphasised greatly on the development of scientific temper.

However, it is important to be constantly aware that science is not magic. To say that all questions will be solved by science is to replace God with science. It is only the people who can solve problems. Scientific thinking shows us the appropriate way to solve them. Apart from this, making science popular and inculcating scientific temper are separate challenges and we must remember this. For instance, it is beneficial to increase the use of solar energy in our daily lives, but it is inimical to scientific temper to inaugurate the equipment used for solar energy with a lemon or by cracking open a coconut. However, making science popular can be a way to inculcate scientific temper. When inventions affect our surroundings, they help to improve the understanding of science and indirectly to inculcate scientific temper.

The method science uses to imbibe knowledge is scientific temper. A specific method of acquiring knowledge historically developed along with the development of science. Religious faith might be an inherent and strong characteristic of man, but so is critical thinking. People use critical thinking all the time while making business decisions. Businesses fail if all factors are not considered carefully. Scientific thinking is this same careful consideration but it is not used while making business decisions. It is used to understand what an incident means, what the different elements in nature are, what the rules governing various phenomena are, etc. 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 that theory, one has to show that either the proof or the reasoning is faulty. Else the theory is accepted as true. This is why religious faith begins to support and converge with established scientific theories. When scientific thinking and knowledge gained ground in Europe, religion did not destabilise or become 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.

(From His Marathi  book Vichar Tari Karaal)

Translated by  Jai Vipra

Comments are closed.