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A statement on scientific temper

 

On July 19, 1981, the Nehru Centre in Bombay, released a document by P N Haksar, along with Dr Raja Ramanna and Dr P M Bhargava, under the title, “A Statement on Scientific Temper”. In the Introduction to the document, Dr Raja Ramanna says: “The nation owes a deep debt of gratitude to Jawaharlal Nehru, more than to any other, for the sustained growth and many-sided development of modern science and technology in India, as viable instruments of social transformation. The need of the time is the diffusion of science and technology into the societal fabric at all levels. This can only be achieved by promotion of what Jawaharlal Nehru chose to call the Scientific Temper – a rational attitude, the importance of which he emphasised time and again. Indeed, the Scientific Temper has to be fostered with care at the individual, institutional, social and political levels.”

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In his Foreword to the document, P N Haksar writes: The Nehru Centre arranged for some of us to assemble together in a quiet corner of our country to share our common concern at the accelerating pace of retreat from reason. The venue of our meeting was Coonoor, so lush and green and full of promise as our entire land is. For four days and nights, from October 22-25, 1980, we discussed and debated what needed to be done to halt the process of decay of reason and rationality. I had the honour of presiding over the deliberations. The end result of it all was a statement on scientific Temper.

That Statement was subsequently shown to others. It was further refined. We now present this Statement as revised. We are not unaware of its inadequacies. However, it is our earnest hope that the Statement will generate a wider debate and discussion in our country.

There are more than two million scientists and technologists in our country. In addition, we have a large number of economists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists, lawyers, doctors, administrators, management specialists and teachers who, in one way or another, apply the scientific temper and scientific methodology in pursuit of their respective professions and disciplines.

If the Statement succeeds in generating a nation-wide discussion, it will also, hopefully, generate a movement for the much needed second renaissance in our country. The first renaissance inspired the struggle for freedom. The second must of necessity provide the necessary fillip for the re-structuring of our country embodying the aspirations of our people.

Only in the measure we succeed in installing Scientific Temper as the dominant ethos of our collective being, can we hope to face the accumulating problems of our national existence. We must understand that it is not going to be easy. We shall have to do a great deal of heart searching ourselves.

It is often argued, with seeming profundity, that while scientific temper is alright, it does not satisfy humanity’s spiritual needs; that the entire realm of art and music, poetry and drama fall outside its ambit. In answer to such critics, I can do not more than remind ourselves of how Jawaharlal Nehru resolved the seeming contradiction between our material and spiritual needs. In The Discovers of India, he defines in the following terms his own attitude:  “The real problems for me remain problems of individual and social life, of harmonious living, of a proper balancing of an individual’s inner and outer life, of an adjustment of the relation between individuals and between groups of a continuous becoming something better and higher, of social development, of the ceaseless adventure of man.
In the solution of these problems the way of observation and precise knowledge and deliberate reasoning, according to the method of science, must be followed. This method may not always be applicable in our quest of truth, for art and poetry and certain psychic experiences seem to belong to a different order of things and to exclude the objective methods of science.

Let us, therefore, not rule out intuition and other methods of sensing truth and reality. They are necessary even for the purposes of science. But always we must hold to our anchor of precise knowledge tested by reason … we must beware of losing ourselves in a sea of speculation unconnected with the day-today problems of life and the needs of men and women. A living philosophy must answer the problems of today.”

Chapter 1 – Preamble

THE history of humanity bears witness to periods of enlightenment as well as to periods of darkness. It bears witness to the rise and fall of civilization. Through all the vicissitudes of time the knowledge gained by humanity has retained a quality of indestructibility. Viewing the entire panorama of the universal history of mankind, one becomes conscious of a continuous but forward movement towards greater knowledge, and to an increasing capacity of human beings to exercise control over their environment.

While humanity as a whole accumulates knowledge, there is no guarantee that the availability of such knowledge will, by itself, enable every country to use it successfully for its own advancement and the well being of its people. There are examples in history where predominant social, politicalcultural and value systems inhibited the absorption of knowledge resulting in periods of stagnation, decay and retreat from reason, rationality and science. Though the Renaissance began in Italy, and Galileo, the harbinger of modern science, was an Italian, adherence to obscurantism enforced by the Church led Italy to losing the benefit of the Renaissance which fertilized Northern parts of Europe. The Renaissance and the Reformation then combined together to revolutionise thought as well as society.

In our own country too we have known of periods of creativity when the spirit of enquiry led to the accumulation of scientific knowledge; there was creativity in literature, music, arts and crafts. However, we have also known of periods when the spirit of enquiry got extinguished. During those long stretches of time everything was reduced to unquestioning dogmas and to the performance of dead rituals. There was deadening of curiosity and questioning. There was only passivity and acceptance. And finally, we were overtaken by the greatest of disasters—our complete colonisation and subjugation to British imperialism.

Contemplating our decline decay and subjugation, some of our best minds began asking themselves why and how it all happened. This spirit of enquiry and questioning gave birth to a wide social cultural movement which we call the Indian renaissance. The best Indian minds in the pre independence times insistently propagated the need for the people to think independently and fearlessly, and to question traditional beliefs. This effort, in time, produced a critique of the colonial system. Out of this critique was born a powerful national movement for our liberation. The British imperial system, aligning itself with the vested interests, endeavoured to counter the broad stream of nationalism by encouraging revivalism and obscurantism. And though Indian renaissance never elaborated a critique of our entire ancient society and unfortunately made compromises, the urge to acquire knowledge and the scientific outlook remained strong. The spirit of questioning ultimately overwhelmed an imperial system which seemed so powerful and even immutable.

There is a wide awareness in our times that we are living in a scientific age of great discoveries in science, affecting and moulding both our material and social existence. It is indeed remarkable how a comparatively small number of physical laws seem sufficient to explain a great part of behaviour of matter, right from huge and massive heavenly objects located at the very edges of outer universe to the minute regions of atoms and atomic nucleus. In life sciences, we are in the midst of far reaching, even revolutionary, changes. The entire history of humanity shows that it is the scientific temper which not only created and promoted science, but also gave humanity the means to affect the natural and social environment. It is, therefore, the scientific temper which is the most precious heritage of humanity. It is the result of incessant human labour, search and struggle.

Jawaharlal Nehru gave an impetus to Scientific Temper by setting before the people the target of catching up with the rest of the world with the help of science and technology. He unfolded the perspective of leap-frogging the centuries. Implicit in such a vision was a vast change in the intellectual climate of our people. Our Constitution and the subsequent Resolution on Science Policy were predicated upon the assumption that our ancient society needed basic changes. However, there was not enough appreciation of the relationship between the objectives to be achieved and the methods as well as the instrumentalities appropriate for bringing about the desired changes. No systematic and sustained effort was made to work out, specifically and concretely, what needed to be done to build a society which is animated by a spirit of enquiry rather than passivity and acceptance. The result of this lack of directed efforts was accommodation, even compromise, with the forces of obscurantism and with the existing inegalitarian social and economic structures. Failure to give mass dimensions and appropriate institutional forms to Scientific Temper, more specially to our educational system, led to the erosion of confidence in our capacity to mould our destiny.

In such an environment, Scientific Temper is beleaguered and besieged by deep rooted structures of an ancient society with superimposed colonial structures. Consequently, there has been frustration of our hopes of optimising the results of the application of science and technology for our national reconstruction. Inevitably, such frustration has encouraged a search for and reliance upon authority. Inevitably too, there has been a growth of tendencies to escape into magical beliefs and instant solutions. Even science and technology are being offered not as methods of enquiry or value systems but as magical cures for our ills, reminding one of the time when Roman intellectuals sought refuge in Levantine magic. There is inadequate appreciation of the close interaction between science and technology and society and of the fact that the benefits of science and technology can reach the people only if the socioeconomic conditions are conducive. If the cultural environment, socio economic conditions and institutional structures inhibit the spirit of enquiry, the desired results can never be achieved.

The gravity of our predicament is increasing day by day. While we rank high among the industrialised countries in the world and are the third largest country in the world in regard to the stock of manpower trained in science and technology, we are close at the bottom of the list in terms of per capita food consumption, longevity, health care and general quality of life. We have all the technology available right now within the country to give water, food, shelter, and basic health care to our millions. And yet we do not. Something has gone wrong. The logic of planning and the logic of our socio-economic structure are at variance. Hence, our failures and disappointments.

In such an environment, there is an erosion of belief in the capacity of human faculties to solve national problems through a systematic critique of the existing social situation. There is a cancerous growth of superstition at all levels. Rituals of the most bizarre kind are frequently performed often with official patronage. Obscurantist social customs are followed even by those whose profession is the pursuit of scientific enquiry. Our entire educational system works in an atmosphere of conformity, non- questioning and obedience to authority. Quoting authority of one kind or another substitutes enquiry, questioning and thought.

Obscurantism and irrationalism practised by a hierarchy of authorities, bas the predictable effect of reinforcing retreat from reason. Voices raised against such a state of affairs get silenced. The decision- making processes are increasingly being divorced from any rational purpose or design. There is no long-term perspective based on ascertained facts and scientific analysis. Adhocism, whims and the narrowest of considerations take the place of well-planned programmes. Priorities, if any, are fixed without sufficient data-base and without any attempt at scientific evaluation of national needs, potentialities and feasibility of implementation. Mere slogans tend to be used as a substitute for action and for creating an illusion of achievement. Dramatic crash programmes are launched. These, inevitably, crash. There are no perspective plans. Even Five Year Plans have been reduced to annual exercises of allocating funds.

As our country enters the last two decades of the 20th century, the need to move forward is becoming ever more insistent. We either overcome the obstacles or we shall be overcome by unreason and dark reaction. We must understand the meaning as well as the imperatives of Scientific Temper, representing as it does, humanity’s assertion of being in charge of its destiny and not a passive victim of malevolence or benevolence of stars. To do so, we need to actively combat beliefs which erode Scientific Temper and undermine its growth. Only then shall we illumine our darkening national horizon and provide our people, once again, with a vision and a method for translating that vision into reality. Such a vision must have a Scientific Temper as its integrating bond.

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series from the essay “A statement on scientific temper”. Read Part two here and part three here.)

Photo: Olga

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