Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, India 411007
On the occasion of science day it is good to reflect on some basic questions that shape our attitude towards science and its role in our living. In this essay I wish to discuss an important question about what should our response be on the things we donot know. What we believe as a matter of faith, does it have any scientific or intellectual basis. Should faith be sustainable rationally in some way? This is particularly important to discuss this question in the context of some of the leading scientists and technologists accord public obescience to god-persons matas or gurus. One such instance occurred in the enlighted city of Pune - that couldn't have escaped notice for its pretty unobtruse visibility - only a few days back. It thus certainly asks for a very serious discussion and consideration.
At the outset let me define my premise of discussion in clear terms. In the true scientific spirit I shall steadfastly adhere to the dictum that all statements are always suspect and their validity must be verified perpetually. Scientific statements are true until proved otherwise and hence they are strictly speaking provisional. This is the basic "dharma" of science. The history of science is full of such examples where older concepts/truths are replaced by newer. The most remarkable and revolutionary instance can be cited is that of the Einsteinian concepts of space and time superceeding the Newtonian concepts. There is an unceasing pursuit of finding the absolute value of the universal constants to greater and greater accuracy going down to ever increasing number of decimal places. For the truth of the current fundamental theory and thereby its implications and predictions crucially depends on the exact value of these constants. That is everything is always suspect and will remain so is the motto of scientific enquiry. This defines my formal premise.
Let us now address to Faith. It is certainly an unproven and unestablished belief. Why do we need it - what role does it play in the context of social interactions as well as in one's or people's search for truth? Since it is unproven and not likely to be proven soon, do we have absolute arbitrariness in choosing it or there should be some criteria to constrain and demark boundary of rational sustainability. These are the key questions we have to address to before going any further.
Our view of the Universe, by which we shall mean both man and nature in the most general and all-encompassing sense, is being enriched and enhanced everyday through knowledge we gain in our common conscience and unconscience endeavour of understanding it. By knowledge I mean knowledge gained by employing scientific criteria and methodology, which may though have some inherent limitation but we adhere to it because there does not exist an alternative framework of gaining meaningful knowledge. I do realise that this may sound a very offensive stance in some quarters, with due humility I would like to submit that there is absolutely no place for taking cognisance of non-scientific knowledge even if it by a stretch of imagination could be called knowledge. Just to focus the point a bit further, the basic demands of scientific methodology are that inferences must be within the defined framework, observer independent, every statement should be verifiable (it will include the criterion of falsifiability), and there is an internal logical consistency in the entire conceptual and theoretical framework. Anything that falls outside this cannot be meaningful and useful as a body of knowledge.
Before we get into the serious discussion on faith, let us, as an example, consider a well established practice of observing yearly memorial service (shradh) to the departed dear ones in the traditional manner of feeding the brahmins (even if some of them may be wellfed) and crows etc. There is nothing wrong but rather natural for one to remember one's dead dear ones even demonstratively. There are several shades to this. I shall mention a few; first, it is one's emotional need for one was attached to the departed ones, second, it is perhaps a bit more conscious and affirmative attitude to form a linkage with one's past through ancestry, and third, it is an act of paying one's homage and respect to the dead through memorials, festivities and celebrations. All these aspects are very desirable and could play a very important and positive social role. My main objection is the act of feeding brahmins and the belief that this makes the dead happy and stomachfull wherever he might be. Further that the dead's spirit is also supposed to be present there in some form. This is presumably the most objectional aspect for the point of view we are concerned here - the rational sustainability. As I shall argue later that there is nothing in our today's knowledge that could honestly justify a projection of this kind in the unestablished (faith) belief plane. It might have been right thing to feed brahmins when they were supposed to gather no material possessions and their job was to guide the society intellectually and philosophically and their material upkeep was community's responsibility. To make this acceptable to people in general this device of dead's soul (pittar) was invented and immediately everyone fell in line without question. I would boldly say that all myths have this weaponary motivation. I won't question the use of such weapon in all circumstances but it must be realised at least by the intellectuals to whom the people look for guidance and philosophical illumination that it is only a weapon invented for a specific purpose. It is really unfortunate if the situation is otherwise, which is really so as has been exemplified by one of the leading intellectuals going over board by stating that he does believe that dead's soul is present in some form. This is really very disturbing.
As I said earlier that it is a positive practice to remember dead ones in a loving and respectful manner. We just perhaps need to reorient the context, brahmins could be replaced by social activists or anyother common good projects and organisations who are attempting to activise society on various issues of profound social significance. We should also lift our concern from the basic need of food alone - and that too for one meal in an year- instead one can take up one activist's upkeep for an year in the memory of someone you care for. This will be a positive service to the society. We do have tradition of such memorials in the form of public use facilities like school, hospital, water source etc. I shall however advocate strongly a more socially oriented form of supporting social activists.
On the day of shradh it could be an interesting and refreshing thing to gather together people who were associated with the dead to remember and recall the various aspects of his personality in a rather candid and honest way rather than in an idolised form. This is to pass on to the next generation a true and sincere heritage. The young ones must know that their ancestors were not godlike and they needn't be so for them to be true and honest. This also has a sobering effect of toning down the blotted ego of some families and their young and with this realisation they will be able to interact with others harmoniously and with understanding.
This much should suffice on an example of unsustainable faith. Let us get back to the main issue.
As the important question raised is of faith-shradha. Admittedly faith refers to belief that is unproven and unestablished by today's knowledge. As stated earlier by knowledge we shall mean scientific knowledge obtained by adhering to well established scientific method.
As stated at the beginning scientific knowledge will have the basic characteristic of being eternal "suspect". Note that the moving force in science is not so much that it is true or false rather it is to be always open for enquiry and test unlike the religious beliefs and pronouncements. Any statement that cannot be tested even in principle is a non-scientific statement.
Firstly how does faith enter into our consideration? The prime motivation for it seems to be the psychological need of man to make a possible image or projection of the unknown. Since it is to be projection of the unknown, it is by definition to be unestablished. Now the basic question is: Should we have arbitrary freedom in making this image of the unknown? Here several pertinent questions crop up. Should the image have a universal character; i.e. all share it or should it be an individual's personal concern? Clearly personal concern should not, as stated above, concern us here. For it does not satisfy the criterion of meaningfulness and usefulness for the people as a whole. We are addressing to faith that has the following of society as a whole. This is why it is very pertinent that it has some connection with possible and conceivable in the context of what we know today. This will be a true measure in some sense of people's intellectual strength and honesty. Imaging the unknown would also have weoponary aspect as indicated in the case of shradh. It can be dictated by certain conscious considerations and it is often targeted to serve some specific purpose. This is where it leaves the plane of pure and simple enquiry. It is just a question of devising a social weapon to serve some good social purpose. We shall not address this question on this level and would rather concern overselves to man's desire to complete the conceptual picture by "imaging" the unknown parts.
So my clear stance on this issue is that an image of unknown, which by all means be not only approximate but may lie in the realm of imagination, should not be arbitrary without any anchoring into what is known. At the same time it should not be propelled by any consideration and purpose exterior to the process of trying to image the unknown. For instance the invention of pittar has exterior purpose of propagating a specific act in the society. This is not directed at understanding what happens after death in a cogent way. Here I would also like to distinguish between myth and blind faith. The former though an arbitrary imposition on the unknown but is harmless and may even be desirable as it has no claim for its actual realisation even at the level of concept. It has built in unreal characteristic indicating that it is simply an invention or device to transmit certain message. Blind faith on the other hand is not so innocuous because it makes one believe that it is possible and perhaps even true. Hence unlike myth one interacts with faith actively not only individually but socially. Hence it has to be taken on a different footing than myth.
Having seen that if we are to include the image of the unknown in our consideration in a meaningful way, we cannot afford the luxury of arbitrariness in imaging it. By meaningful I mean any abstract construct that helps in making a consistent and harmonious completion of the overall picture that includes both known and unknown. Let me elaborate on this. We wish to make a picture of the Universe (I use this term in the sense of all inclusion and encompassing), some part of it we know while the others we don't. The abstract projection of the unknown should be such that it fits with the known to complete the picture without breaking continuity and harmony. Thus our imaging must be anchored in some loose sense in the known, that is it must fall in the realm of envision and concept from what we know. All such projections will be organically linked to the known and hence will always create a tantalizing feeling that we just about know it but not quite. It will give rise to a very exciting situation intellectually and I believe it should be exciting socially too. The most effective method of progress towards knowing the unknown is to project certain behaviour to the unknown and then try to verify it. This is how science attempts to know and understand the nature and the Universe. This brings in the unknown in the realm of a kind of active interaction. It will serve a very useful purpose in our endeavour of knowing the Universe. The Universe includes all without exception. I shall term beliefs based on such imaging as rationally and intellectually sustainable and all others as non-sustainable or blind. Non- sustainable beliefs are not meaningful and useful and are usually harmful, and hence should not be of concern to any intellectually enlighted society. Sustainability of faiths is the measure of society's intellectual strength and health.
At this stage one may ask for a distinguishing characteristic of sustainable and non-sustainable beliefs. The image of pittar is an excellent example of the latter because from what we know today it cannot be sustained at all. The example of the former could be that we can understand human consciousness in terms of physical and chemical effects. This is perhaps not a very satisfying example because it perhaps fall into the obvious possible. I would say the constraints of sustainability will highly constrain our imaging of the unknown. This is what we should appreciate and learn to live with even at the psychological and emotional plane if we wish to be true and honest intellectually. I do admit that the above example may not be adequate. Perhaps we need a step up in our intellectual enlightment to sustain the sustainable beliefs. The rest may be articulated through inventing imaginative myths, which I find quite acceptable as communicator of dos and don'ts for the people in general.
Finally there is no claim being made that the sustainable imagery is the true picture of things. All we say is that it is a projection that may or may not be true but it is a possible image. Even scientifically established truths are always suspect, the imaging is simply a construct which has yet to be established and hence it does not even qualify to fall in the realm of suspectability. In a general sense I would say that intellectual sustainability is a necessary requirement and a measure of intellectual fervour and honesty of a society. And that should in good measure determine the overall strength and wisdom of the people.