Wednesday, May 18, 2005


In spite of all the outcries created by Creationism and Intelligent Design, at their core, they may turn out to be simply cases of sheer lethargy, which however is is an equally pernicious disease. As Michael Lynch at Indiana University worries, the problem with these concepts is that, irrespective of their details, they seem to propagate the "legitimizing of intellectual laziness" (Nature, May 19, 2005). Don't know how something happened? Invoke a creator. Don't understand how something works? Invoke an all powerful deity.

I think that Lynch, along with others, has hit the nail on the head. After two thousand years of astounding rational and scientific progress, why do believers in religion and pseudoscience abound? The crushingly simple answer (if not the only one, I think, at least a major part of "the" answer) is that it's simply easy to live life that way.

John Casti, in his entertaining, but always enlightening style, says in his magnificent Paradigms Lost (with slight modifications):

"A lot of pseudoscientific and religious ideas are not only heartening and push the whole problem of explanation under the rug, but even appeal to what we usually call common sense. Unfortunately, neither the world nor science is as simple as naive common sense would have us believe. For example, what kind of peasant cunning would suggest that energy levels in atoms come only in discrete packets? It seems that the more advanced a scientific specialty becomes, the less reliable common sense is as a guide. In fact many aspects of modern science are just plain contrary to common sense. The point to keep in mind is that most beliefs being promoted as 'alternatives' to science are deliberately calculated to fit smoothly into what common sense suggests is the way things should be, as well as the way to solve all our problems. Within these comforting world views, we have no problems of our own- everything that happens to us does so because of bad aspects of Jupiter, the work of the devil, or the will of superior beings from Andromeda. At root, these beliefs are a measure of disappointment with which the general public greets the revelations of science. The average man wants complete, easy-to-understand, clear-cut answers, when all that science has to offer is arcane, difficult to follow ifs, ands, buts, and maybes"

So let's face it. The fact is; all of us, human beings, are weak. We need some kind of emotional support that simply appears when we invoke it. We are not ready to go the painful lengths that are necessary to understand science and reason, which even when deciphered, are tentative. All this is understood. When a loved one dies unexpectedly for example, we have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it is merely an accident. At such times, it is a deep emotional need that is fulfilled when we appeal to an unknown source of cause and effect that provides us with a definite, if vicarious, source of strength.

All this would have been all right if we had kept all the spiritual devices to ourselves. The real problem is not that people go to chuches, preach, or pray to god. I don't think any scientist in his right mind would have an objection to that. Trouble starts brewing when these beliefs start infringing upon sound and rational scientific wisdom, which no matter how tentative it may be, still provides the most solid picture of reality based on highly accurate observational evidence. Scientists become uncomfortable not when priests deliver sermons on heaven and hell to thousands of devotees, but when they start preaching their version of reality-generation as a legitimate alternative to established scientific theories like evolution, the details of which may be debated, but the general picture of which is anything but tentative.

One of the most striking concepts in science, as well as in life, is that of complementarity; the existence of disparate and seemingly opposite elements, that nonetheless must co-exist to define the fabric of reality. The phenomenon of wave-particle duality in physics is a supreme example. In life too, we find things like war and peace, happiness and sorrow, right and wrong (whatever they may be), that, though contradictory, are all essential to shape the human social, intellectual, and spiritual existence.
In spite of this accceptance of complementarity in many aspects of our life, it is an astounding fact to me that we cannot keep science and religion separate and let them be nourishing and complementary structures of our world. Somewhere, we must circumvent this "either-or" approach and adopt the "and" approach. Unfortunately, protagonists of pseudoscience make their own perverse attempts to do this, thus pitting the two camps against each other, and stamping out sincere efforts for reconciliation.

In the end, it is simply a matter of growing up and facing the facts. When we were children, we used to read stories about fairies and witches. As we grew up, we realised, with some disappointment, that fairies don't exist. This feeling however, was also tempered with the satisfaction in knowing that witches don't exist too. Life seems to be a combination of forsaking faith in both fairies and witches, one of which may bring us joy, and one of which may bring us disappointment. Scientists and rational thinkers have largely faced up to these facts. They have realised that with every witch that is slain, signalling an advance in our understanding of our world and the discovery of a wonderful new fact, there is a fairy that has to be sacrificed, which perhaps means giving up our idealistic faith in what we would have liked the world to be like. Whether we brood over the death of the fairy, or exalt in the death of the witch and resurrection of the truth, marks the difference between pessimism and optimism. What makes science fun and always challenging and fascinating, is that there is no dearth of fairies to be forsaken or witches to be slain. Not surprisingly, this hide and seek of witches and fairies is another example of the complementarity which we talked about earlier. Pseudoscientists and believers, on the other hand, still believe in eternal fairies and witches, frequently masking that belief under optimism and evangelical conviction.

Finally, it's of no consequence whether we call something as 'common' or 'uncommon' sense or whatever else. The truth is that it represents the facts. Are we prepared to accept the facts as they are, or even make attempts to do so? That seems to be the real question...If we cannot, as Richard Feynman said, maybe we should "go to a different Universe, where the laws are simpler"...Who said life was easy?!


Blogger Sumedha said...

I simply believe in heaven and in fairies; forget about hell and its hellions.
Scientific experimentation has always seemed a little bit magical to me...after all, the greatest discoveries may not have been possible without enduring personal faith.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

True. But "personal faith" is somewhat of a misnomer. What is really the ultimate faith in science is faith in experiment. Personal faith in science is never faith in the usual sense of the term, because it is always subject to revision based on experimental results.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Interesting responses to the previous editorial in the current issue of Nature.
Intelligent design is an intelligent design by some scientists who don't want to get involved in any religious debate and simply do research. A bad idea!

10:22 AM  

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