SCIENCE AND HUMANISM FOR THE MODERN WORLD

Science and Technology

The history of human civilization is marked by several major revolutions, some slow and some abrupt, some dramatic and some subtle, some of local significance and some of global impact. Among  the most important of these are the agricultural revolution which introduced sowing, harvesting, and storage of crops; the cultural revolution from which emerged abstract thoughts and ethical frameworks, as also philosophies and religious systems; the scientific revolution which changed the coordinates of our planet from cosmic center to an insignificant niche in an immeasurably  vast expanse; and the industrial-technological revolution which harnesses matter and energy on  the basis of a modern scientific understanding of the workings of the physical world.

It would be simplistic, indeed a distortion of history, to declare that in earlier times there was neither science nor technology. From the unrecorded dawn of consciousness, when the human mind wondered and human hands turned a stone or a stick this way and that to feel and fathom what it was, science has been there in every community and culture. And in periods now long past science flourished with creativity and vigor in ancient India and China, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and elsewhere. So too, devices have been contrived to lessen muscular effort and facilitate human manipulation of the world since time immemorial. Wonderment and curiosity about the surroundings, and eagerness to diminish sweat and work are inherent to the human spirit.

What is characteristic of modern times is the universality of transnational science, and the ubiquity  of modern technology. There is no  member of the United Nations Organization where science is not taught, or planes don't land. Whether one understands science or decries it, no serious thinker or leader in the twentieth century can ignore science, or function without its technological offshoots. The primary contribution of science has been the quenching of curiosity through disinterested search, the providing of intellectual satisfaction through its explanatory successes, and the enhancement of creature comforts through ingenious technology.

In spite of all our national differences and cultural diversity, no matter what language we speak and what creeds we subscribe to, the one common thread that connects the minds of men and women in today's world  is the thread of international science. So too, the commonalties in the towns and cities of the modern world are electrical lights and communication systems, automobiles and computers.

Religion

But there is more to life than curiosity and comfort. So too, there is more to culture than science and technology. Human beings wonder, not just about  sun and  stars, or  rain and cloud,  but also about the reason for life and the relevance of mind. We reflect on human existence, we question why we came to be, and we are intrigued by where we are heading  to. We don't have an inkling of how we become individuals, what gives us a sense of self, much less of what happens to our thoughts and feelings once we are no more. Then there is the longing for bonds, bonds with friends and families and loved ones, and also a subtle yearning to connect with the Whole.

Thus have arisen the religions of the world, for religions offer answers to such questions, often from the insights of keen thinkers, sometimes as revelations to superior seers. More importantly, religions have provided ethical frameworks for societies to function, and rites and rituals by which one communicates with the Beyond. Religions have been potent forces in human history. Their mission is to elevate us to our highest potentials, they have revealed esoteric truths. They cement groups and communities through common practices. They have inspired great art and music, architecture and literature.  Associated with religion is spirituality. The spiritual experience leads to ecstasy, even to glimpses of the beyond. If prayer is an effort to bond with the ultimate, meditation is a process for probing into the mystery of the self and of consciousness, of the nature and root of mind and awareness.

The human body is a puny entity. This minuscule package of mind and matter emerged barely a couple of million years ago, through the slow silence of immutable physico-chemical laws, acting in harmony and at random too, for if the mystery of life can be tracked down to molecular bonds, no calculation could have predicted the confluence of countless factors that brought it into play. It was the most sublime manifestation of the chaos principle in action. Or was it perhaps a carefully conceived coordination of causal links? Who can tell!

But this we know: The  human being is  a good deal more than a biological bundle. There is in each of us the magic of thought and feeling, the glory of art and music, the excitement of love and the ennobling of ideals. Then there is the penetrating power of the mind that can fathom the ultimate nature of the complex world, reach the very ends of the universe, and mathematize the microcosm. If all this is mere matter and energy, then one might as well say that a couplet from the Kural or a  play of Kalidasa's is a mere heap of letters permuted in peculiar ways. The human sprit is the capacity for self-awareness, for joyful interaction, for religious ecstasy, and yes, for being touched by awe in the face of the mysterium tremendum. The human sprit is the intangible element in the fleeting persistence of Homo sapience. Just as there is more to flower than soil and tree-branch, the spirit is more than neural network, more than heartbeat and vital breath.

Religions have lasted much longer than modern science. They too have had significant impacts on individuals and on civilizations. They have  brought meaning and purpose to human life, injected joy, soothed sorrow, and guided our behavior in a myriad ways. There is no human culture that is devoid of a belief-system to respond to the awe and mystery of world and existence.

The Internationalization of Science

      During long stretches of history, the scientific quest found many expressions in different regions and cultures. Now and again there were interactions here and there, and exchanges and influences among the interacting groups.

      But the scientific revolution of the 16th century was of major significance. It was significant not so much in the discarding of geocentricity though this was one of its earliest steps; not so much in the discovery of elliptical planetary orbits and Jovian satellites though these opened our visions to hitherto hidden aspects of the universe, not even so much in the formulation of the laws of motion, though these led to a deeper understanding of the physical world; but the modern scientific revolution was significant because it initiated a universality in the scientific framework which has transformed the very nature of the enterprise.

      For, since the emergence of modern science, the enormous range of scientific efforts in different countries, and then in different continents, have come to be subsumed under a single umbrella, made up of an abstract international body of scientific practice and culture. The various nations of the world have their own research laboratories and publications, and yet, the works carried out and published in these geographically separated places are interwoven into a web held firm by invisible bonds that know no borders, that feel no cultural differences. The meter and  the  kilogram in any national bureau of standards is precisely the same, no matter what the religion or form of government may be in the country.

      Science certainly has its local interests, narrow nationalism, and petty fights over priorities too. After all, it is only a human enterprise. There are rivalries and races in the pursuit of knowledge and competition in discoveries. There is national pride when a prize is announced. And yet, the technical work of scientists is blind to nationalities, they overlap and mingle like sounds from different instruments in an orchestra to create and constitute the grand symphony that science is. Indeed, the true strength and stature of modern science lies in its universality. Science is no longer bits of insights here and there, nor imaginative speculations by keen minds in particular cultures. It surely is not parochial ethnic interpretations of natural phenomena, nor narratives from sacred books. Rather, science is  a collective quest, a restless drive to eradicate every misunderstanding, to interpret every occurrence from the micro to the macrocosm, to unravel every mystery and dispel every doubt and darkness from the inquiring mind.

      In no other context in human culture: not in art, nor in music, not in sports, much less in politics, do men and women of all races and colors, of all languages and religions, hold hands as comrades in a common pursuit. This speaks as much to the glory of the science as an enterprise, as any technological triumph that science might have achieved.

Religion, Separate and Universal

      The scientific revolution merged diverse streams of search into a single surging river, as it were. But nothing of the kind happened in the realm of religion. Here the ancient roots stayed separate and sturdy, and the trees grew taller and vigorous too, shooting out branches along different directions, but the branches of a tree drew nourishment from their respective roots. Whether it was Judaism or Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam, each gave rise to different sects and schools, but in each instance, there was a core which was safe and secure.

      Unlike with science, there arose no common religious institution to embrace all the faiths of humankind to form a single superstructure unto which all would come and pray. True, there have been efforts to repair old schisms, attempts to heal historical wounds, even movements to bring out the best from all religions. But  Din Ilahis and Unitarians, Bahais, and Brahmos have been elite groups, rather than major religions with mass followings. If anything, over the past few centuries, newer groups have come and gone, new swamis and babas, new prophets and cult leaders, have forged more movements still.

      One reason for this is that science is concerned with the external world of stark reality, whereas religion is linked to internal reality, to local moorings  traditions, and community. Every religion is affiliated, not only to ancient prophets and personages, but also to time-honored rites and rituals, which have acquired the weight of centuries and the wisdom of ages. To reject all this and embrace a global network is far more difficult than to switch from the geocentric to the heliostatic model, or to use a telescope to probe the skies.

      So it is that that in schools the world over the same laws of nature and the same mathematics are taught, the same facts of anatomy and the same genetic structures are explained, but in places of worship different symbols are venerated, different eschatologies are expounded, and different days are prescribed for fasting and feasting.

  Need for a Trans-denominational Religion

      This persistence of religious diversity is understandable. It has its cultural and aesthetic richness too. And yet, the situation is also crying for fresh perspectives. For ours has become a very complex world with complex interactions between peoples. It is a world where some nations are still firmly affiliated to a single specific religious loyalty, while others foster enlightened  religious pluralism. It is a world where economic injustices and political squabbles still disfigure the face of human culture.

      In such a world, if it is commendable that people are faithful to their religious traditions, it is also somewhat disconcerting when  both shepherd and sheep are convinced that their particular path to Heaven or salvation or whatever is the only right one there is. In such a world, it becomes all the more imperative that we try to bridge the chasm that perilously separates the peoples of the world. It is urgent that enlightened religious leaders from every faith and intellectuals from every culture inspire men and women of goodwill to complement their local loyalties with a larger global vision of trans-denominational perspectives which would not only enrich their own sensitivities for the sacred and the spiritual, but also serve to lessen the tensions and the mistrust among the more ardent, not to say, mindless enthusiasts among true-believers. In this effort, what we need to do is to extract from the various religions whatever is best and overlapping in values and in perspectives. It is in this context that humanism becomes relevant.

Humanism: Traditional Expressions

      In the Western tradition, the origins of humanism are usually traced to Renaissance Italy in the 14th century where thinkers began to develop a growing interest in the thoughts and writings of the distant past. This gradually moved the minds of many from religio-spiritual abstractions and concern with the hereafter to matters more mundane and practical. Above all, it encouraged a spirit that was always inquiring, intellectually free, respectful of but not subservient to ancient lore.

      Humanistic insights were expressed by many lay thinkers of ancient times. Confucius proclaimed that human nature is the same to begin with, but is molded differently through different encounters. He insisted on virtue and moral example rather than threats of punishment after death. Cicero of ancient Rome suggested that human knowledge and philosophical reflection should be the fuel for leading us towards humanistic ideals. Protagoras of Abdera's famous statement that "Man is the measure of all things" is a view that is essentially humanistic. The Latin poet Terence said:

      Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto:

            I am a man; nothing human can be foreign to me. 

      In the Hindu tradition, inclusiveness of all of humanity, is an intrinsic part of the religious framework.  Thus, the Vedic prayer,

            Lokaa samasthaa sukinko bhavantu

is an appeal for humanity's happiness rather than for just for one's own.   A Yajurvedic poet wanted to speak the revealed truths to all the people.

      yathemaam vaacam kalyaaneem aavadhaani janebhyah (YV: 26.18)

The author of the Tamil work Puranânûru said: 

      yaadum ooré, yaavarum kélir:

            Everywhere is my country; everyone my kin.

The fifteenth century Telugu poet-philosopher Vemana wrote,

If we look at places all over the earth,

People, we see, have equal birth,

In one great brotherhood made, I say

Equal in God's eyes in every any way.

 

When John Milton wrote (Essay on Man: Epic. ii. 1),

      Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

      The proper study of mankind is Man

 

he was echoing a humanist's worldview. Dennis Diderot of the French Encyclopédie, declared Man to be "the sole and only limit whence one must part, and back to whom everything must return…"

Clearly, the humanist attitude is neither new, nor confined to a particular civilization. This is not surprising since humanism is an expression of the natural affinity of human beings, an intra-species bond which tends to become hazy and weakened when local affiliations are formed, only because these latter provide the security that comes from closeness and family ties.

The Ethical Framework

      Both science and religion are magnificent expressions of the human spirit. They have their visions, and they have their values. Each sees the world in a fulfilling way, and both stir our ethical potentials.

      In the context of morality, we need to distinguish between a value system that is good for an enterprise, one that is concerned with the impact on others, and a third that is inspired by consequences to oneself. It is the first kind that we encounter in science, for every ethical principle the scientist follows is in the interest of obtaining correct scientific knowledge.

      Statutory laws in civilized states are meant to curb instinctive behavior which is all too often self-centered and with little regard to its possible hurt on others. On the other hand, religions generally encourage and  inculcate positive moral behavior. They promise rewards, and warn of punishments when one transgresses the ethical code. Their goal  is to bring out our best as moral beings.

      Another context in which science enters the realm of ethics is in the search for the roots of moral principles. This is a topic that has been explored by behavioral scientists, geneticists, neuroscientists, and others. Their search had led to ideas and information which are often revealing, sometimes frightening.  The related speculations, hypotheses, and findings are surely fascinating at the academic theoretical level. But they have contributed little for the moral betterment of individuals or societies. If anything, some of them reduce human behavior to trivial mechanical motions, robot-like actions over which the individual has no ultimate control. Insightful perhaps, interesting surely, but bereft of guidance or wisdom for the man on the street.

      We need to find ways for ensuring the relevance and  importance of morality even when it is declared to be no more than an emergent property of DNA structures. These then are among the challenges for the coming century:

      To benefit from the findings of science, yet not be overwhelmed by its tenets that reduce the human spirit to a complex of atoms and molecules.

      To recognize the role of genes and neurons, yet not be paralyzed in our search for meaning and value in human behavior.

      To appreciate the value in various religious quests in so far as they evoke awe and reverence to the perceived universe, and enable us to feel our spiritual dimension, yet recognize the unity behind the diversity in humankind's traditional religious quests.

      To draw from the wisdom that carries the weight of centuries, yet yield to the revelations of science in matters ultimate pertaining to the phenomenal world.

The problems we face as a species are far more foreboding than our local quarrels, parochial pride, and historical rancor. To solve the problems of the coming century, we need to work together in peace and with understanding. We need to respect our various belief-systems, we need to help one another, and work cooperatively rather than compete with greed or envy.

Humanism extracted from Science and Religion

      Humanism is an amalgam of worldviews and values: the worldview component is drawn from whatever is reasonable, rational, and verifiable from the scientific perspective, while the value component is derived from whatever is ethical, meaningful, and fulfilling in traditional religious perspectives.

      Thus, when it comes to interpreting an aspect of perceived reality in the phenomenal world, the humanist will embrace the scientific picture, not because this is the ultimate truth, but  because, on the weight of all available evidence at a given moment in time, it is the most persuasive interpretation. The humanist will discard the theory of yester-century if it fails in the criteria for truth content. This springs, not  from disrespect for investigators of generations now no more, but because of  untenability  of older views in the light of newly gathered data.

      Likewise, when it comes to embracing ethical principles and adopting a moral conduct,  the humanist will be inspired by the religious wisdom of the ages, enshrined in the revered texts and  traditions of various religions. However, as and when these are seen to embody attitudes and injunctions which, no matter how appropriate they might have been in times past, are  unacceptable in a more enlightened age, the humanist will not shy away from calling a spade a spade and dumping outworn and unconscionable views and values into the dustbin of history. Thus, for example, within the Hindu tradition, from the humanist's perspective, as also in the reckoning of enlightened leaders, both lay and religious, caste hierarchy and untouchability are to be relegated to the not-so glorious pages of our history. 

      The 20th century will be remembered for consciousness-raising and for its scientific/technological breakthroughs.  This century made racism a bad word and shameful practice; recognized gender oppression as social evil; proclaimed human rights as transcending race, caste, and religion; pleaded for international economic justice; condemned the exploitation of the young; began to celebrate diversity; and initiated care for the disabled. It released millions from colonial shackles, and it established world organizations in which free nations come together to solve their problems of food and  health, trade and education, and resolve their political differences through discussions. All these have at their roots humanistic ideals.

Future Visions

      I began with history, and let me conclude with some reflections on the   future. The course of human history is instigated by many factors, perceived and unperceived, gradual and sudden, tangible and intangible too. Thus, the rise of the Buddha, the Christ, or the Prophet Mohammed were among the major perceived factors, while the impact of certain viruses and microbes on the course of human history were never recognized as such. The impact of the Copernican-Galilean science was gradual, that of the French Revolution was sudden. The onset of the computer is a tangible factor, while that of the Human Rights concept is an intangible one.

      So, when we forge visions about the Future, we can only be approximate in our assessment. And while we may be well-intentioned and enlightened  in our planning, there is no telling what the future holds.

We do know that with all its stupendous scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements, the last century has also created horrendous problems, pressing and potential. A population explosion in the face of diminishing water and fuel reserves and mineral deposits, environmental pollution through automobiles and industrial effluents, perilous nuclear wastes, depletion of rain forests: these are challenges of no mean magnitude.  Then there are social and human problems, ranging from poverty and malnutrition to illiteracy and disease.

Added to all this are simmering racial, religious, and economic divides, which, if not bridged or abridged, could lead to explosions of immense proportions. In this context, we must recognize forces within many societies that accentuate the differences, and perpetuate mutual suspicion and hatred. They erupt sometimes from the narrow conviction of the superiority of one's own group or subgroup, sometimes from deep-rooted animosities engendered by centuries of oppression and historical injustices.

Thus, in the new century, though there is much to look forward to in terms of new technologies, increasing economic opportunities, interplanetary adventures, and the promise of cure for deadly diseases, we will be living in a fool’s paradise if we are indifferent to the problems that the human family will be facing in the impending decades.

We cannot afford to engage in the grand illusion that there is no distinction between one group and another, that the message of every prophet is the same. We should rather nurture more effectively the notion of cultural and creedal pluralism to which the people of India are well attuned, recognizing multiplicity as intrinsic to the human condition, and looking upon races and religions as rainbow is in the heavens: colorful, and majestic, beautiful by virtue of the harmony in the hues.

Future possibilities are immense and unpredictable, for the good and for the bad: The discovery of a new and limitless non-polluting energy source could bring about a golden age of prosperity for all of humanity. The rise to power of a mindless maniac with nuclear capabilities could unleash irrevocable devastation on our species.  Education and science could free all humans from ignorance and superstition, but scarce resources could deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Religious and racial bigotry could fire simmering suspicions into horrendous conflagrations, or perhaps the emergence of an enlightened religious outlook would foster understanding and harmony among differing faiths. Or again, the long and checkered course of human history could be snuffed into a mere glitch in the planet’s saga by  the rude intrusion and blind fury of a stray asteroid lured by earth’s gravity. What awaits us in time, no on can tell. Not all the factors that shape the future are within our ken or control.

In this crucial hour of India's and humanity's  long history, and on the auspicious occasion of its Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the Indian Philosophical Congress could perhaps play a valuable role. According to ancient Indian tradition, philosophers do not simply speculate in ivory towers. The symbolism of the Bhagavad Gita suggests that philosophical issues should be explored in the thick of the battlefield of life and the crucible of confrontations, and that vision and wisdom and call to action must be formulated in the context of the dharma of the day. Remembering this, this organization can perhaps take a lead in convening a meeting of the leaders of all religions, and intellectuals of all shades, and persuade them to make a joint public declaration of unity by which they would urge all people to leave behind  the psychological hurt of ugly historical memories, eschew angry exchanges provoked by opposing  ideological commitments, and  commit themselves to the greater cause of national unity and universal harmony. Just as any philosophy devoid of ethical content is mere noise, one that inspires love and promotes the cause of peace and well-being would be a magnificent mingling of ancient wisdom, scientific enlightenment and humanism, all at their best.

Let us dream of a day when the children of this land, of whatever caste or creed will work together hand in hand, and utilize their combined  resources towards solving the nation's problems.  Let us dream of a day when the peoples of the world, of every race, religion, and color, will be able to appreciate and enjoy the richness and wisdom in the world's great traditions.

Now, as never before in human history, we have come to realize that we are all co-passengers in the only space-ship that is ours to share. Fortified by the knowledge that come from the sciences, and enriched by the values and wisdom that come from traditions, we must make every effort to forget the antagonisms and animosities of the past, and strive to build a world civilization that will  make this our planet a more rewarding place to be in.