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How Modern Are We? Why Be Modern? Be Rational

How Modern Are We? Why Be Modern?
Be Rational RANJIT SAU The first three sections of this note annotate certain statements of Meera Nanda in her article


How Modern Are We? Why Be Modern?

Be Rational


he first three sections of this note annotate certain statements of Meera Nanda in her article ‘How Modern Are We? Cultural Contradictions of India’s Modernity’ (EPW, February 11, 2006). The last two sections suggest a way to resolve the basic concern, which animates the article under review as well as delineates a legitimate field of inquiry in its own right.

“India’s project of modernity has evolved within a uniquely inclusive Indian style of counter-Enlightenment”, says Nanda. “By counter-Enlightenment, I (Nanda) mean only this: in a stark contrast to the Enlightenment project of bringing religion within the limits of scientific reason, the Indian counter-Enlightenment has tended to subsume or co-opt scientific reason within the spirit-based cosmology and epistemology of the Vedas”.

As for evidence, two instances are cited.

(a) in early May, throughout the countryside in northern India, thousands of children, mere girls and boys, were married off on ‘Akshay Tritiya’, a day considered astrologically auspicious for marriage and other new ventures, and (b) about that time, India’s top scientists were busy seeking the blessing of Lord Balaji at the Tirupati temple for a safe launch of the polar satellite launch vehicle. A miniature model of the rocket was laid in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and prayed over by priests in the presence of 15 scientists.

Under the circumstances, the article highlights, “the need to speak up for, defend, and advocate the scientific temper is far greater in India (than in America) where superstitions and pseudoscience make a difference between life and death, between dignity and indignity of caste and other hierarchies”. So “there is a need for scientists to stand up for critical reasoning and sound evidence both inside and outside the laboratory”. But, standing up, what exactly would the scientists speak about, and what would they say? Last two sections of this note would go into that and outline a theory of rational belief. Philosophical core: “Newton…derived his first principles from the empirical investigation of phenomena”, says Nanda. “This, to the philosophers of Enlightenment, was in refreshing contrast to the method of theologians and metaphysicians who started with infallible, divine revelations and proceeded to deduce the knowledge of physical phenomena from them”. “Newton’s method became the paradigm of reason for the age of Enlightenment”.

With regard to the domain of discourse, as “the philosophers of Enlightenment exhorted their fellow citizens to live by the light of reason, they were simultaneously redefining reason by setting the limits on what can be legitimately known, given the sensory apparatus and reasoning power human beings are endowed with”. This meant that supra-sensible entities like god, absolute consciousness, soul, vital spirit, etc, which lack extension in space and time forever stay outside human abilities to know them. “This was a momentous change. So far human history, science, or natural philosophy had existed within the limits of religion. Henceforth, religion could exist only within the limits of scientific reason. This was the philosophical core of the Enlightenment.”

Our critique here is threefold, relating to the Enlightenment’s conceptions of respectively religion, reason and rationality. First, Kant distinguishes religion as such from faith. Religion, to him, is universal; there is only one religion. By contrast, faith is particular, historical – having been derived from the contingent revelation. There are as many faiths as the number of prophets.1 Contrary to Nanda’s claim, Enlightenment never thought to have brought faiths “within the limits of scientific reason”. The context of the article under review here is about faith, namely, neo-Hinduism, which is not a Kantian religion. Nanda’s formulation of the term “counter-Enlightenment” is, therefore, false.

The Kantian religion radiates the moral norm of unconditional, “categorical imperative”: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”.2 Reason recommends it. But here “Kant seeks to skirt the problem of many minds”.3 He recognises only one person or several identical persons, not many persons with diverse traditions. The critical element of modern experience is the realisation that on the question of morality, reasonable people tend naturally to disagree with one another. On matters of supreme importance, reason is not likely to bring us together, but tends rather to drive us apart, putting at naught the prospect of a moral norm assented by all. This explains the disenchantment with the Enlightenment, as a reaction to which the Aristotelian value-based philosophy is making a comeback.

Second, man is the sole rational creature on earth. “Reason is a faculty [of man] to extend the rules and objectives in the use of all [his] powers far beyond natural instinct, and it knows no limits to its projects”, says Kant. “However, reason itself does not operate on instinct, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order to gradually progress from one stage of insight to another”.4 How can such a faculty, which is inherently tentative so as to “require trial, practice, and instruction”, deliver moral judgment and guide science to comprehend the world? Furthermore, how does man come to know at what stage reason is located at a given moment so that he can assign truth-value to the rays of “light of reason” by which he is advised to live?

Third, the shortcoming of the Enlightenment project lies in the failure to see that rationality, as such, is an abstract capacity. Its rules are abstract ones, such that logical contradictions are to be avoided or perhaps that one should pursue what one believes to be good and shun what one believes to be bad. Such rules at best are a necessary, but not a sufficient, basis for determining – in conjunction with nonmoral information about the world – the validity of moral norms.5 Inscrutable world: Nanda has reported instances of alleged misinterpretation of

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006 modern science, especially quantum mechanics, by the pretenders of neo-Hinduism. A double approach is necessary to address the misuse: first, demonstrating to them what their mistakes are; and second, asking them to establish their viewpoint in logical terms and by empirical experiment. Such is the scientific method for testing rival hypotheses.

Today science describes the universe with two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Relativity theory is concerned with the force of gravity and large-scale structure, that is, the structure on scale from only a few miles to as large as the size of the whole universe. It displays, among others, the relationship between matter and energy.6

Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with phenomena on extremely small scale, such as a millionth of a millionth of an inch. After breaking matter into smaller and smaller parts, science finds that the smallest pieces of creation, viz, electrons, protons, neutrons, and the like no longer bear the traits of objects. Those are ephemeral energies coalescing in space, and they literally wear no dimension – length, breath or height. Those forces exist as waves spread out over space, and yet they appear as particles if and when observed. In fact, there is compelling evidence that the only time that these quanta ever manifest as particles is when we are looking at them. No observer, no particle, only eerie “waves”. No wonder, quantum mechanics has become a favourite hunting ground for neo-Hinduism. We shall now draw attention to three statements of this branch of modern science.

First, at the quantum level, there is a state of “interconnectedness” between otherwise unrelated subatomic events. Here, location ceases to exist in the sense that every point contains all the information of all other points, making all points equal. To speak of separation or individuality is meaningless: every place is the same as every other, all information is shared. This property is called “non-locality”.

Second, particles, which are the building blocks of the universe, do not have well defined position or speed. Instead they are represented by what is called a “wave function”. This is a number at each point in space. The size of the wave function measures the probability that the particle will be found at that position.

It now transpires that an atom is nothing but a configuration of many waves. By the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, the microscopic realm is a rolling frenzy in a violent sea of quantum fluctuations. Instead of billiard balls, or particles like electrons, nothing but probability waves rule the world. In this kind of surreal subatomic sphere, matter has ceased to exist, making the world of ours describable as only having “a tendency to exist”, or just as an ancient Indian ‘maya’ (illusion).

Third, human beings apart, a kind of consciousness is found even in the inorganic molecular world. A property, called “reassembly” or “self-organisation”, has been discovered in molecular systems and even in macro-systems. Each molecule somehow knows what the other molecule will do, over relatively macroscopic distances.7

To sum up, here are three theorems of quantum mechanics: (a) “non-locality”, which shows interconnectedness between all matter in the universe, and universal equality of all points of the universe in respect of possessing information; (b) “a tendency to exist” rather than existence as such, of matter which points to the illusory (maya) nature of the physical world; and

(c) “re-assembly” or “self-organisation” that hints at the presence of a sort of consciousness in the apparently non-living system as well.

So, at the edge of modern science lurks mysticism. It lays out a fertile bed for humanisation of mysticism, and mystification of humans, with ample temptation for opportunism. Neo-Hindu Hubris: Two theorems of modern science are most likely to be harnessed by the pretenders of neo-Hinduism: that matter transforms into energy (relativity theory) and vanishes into mysterious waves (quantum mechanics), and that consciousness in some sense pervades the universe. Hindu scriptures have been saying similar things for ages. But problem arises when they proceed to draw ethics from those.

Thousands of years ago a caveman had noticed a piece of wood when burnt disappearing into nothing. He was wise enoughnot to think that, therefore, the world was maya and that hence he should do this and that. Now if matter, subjected to certain procedure in quantum mechanics laboratory, eventually turns into “probability waves”, it does not make the physical world illusory, nor does it emit canons of morality for humans. Should neo-Hinduism disagree, it has to show how the sub-atomic quanta influence human beings.

A certain form of consciousness has been detected in the inorganic sphere. From this alone one cannot identify it as part of a divine spirit. The existence of the spirit, if any, has to be established and its link with the consciousness of matter has also to be demonstrated. Scientific method: The philosophy of science has evolved in the course of time. To Newton, science seemed to afford proof of existence of god as the almighty lawgiver. Science was valued as a means of getting to know the world. But now with the triumph of technology, it is conceived as showing how to change the world.

The new point of view was first proclaimed by Marx in 1845, in his Theses on Feuerbach. He says: “The question whether objective truth belongs to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. The truth, i e, the reality and power, of thought must be demonstrated in practice. The contest as to the reality or non-reality of a thought which is isolated from practice, is a purely scholastic question.” At the end, he enjoins: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the real task is to change it”.

What now recommends a theory is that it “works”. Experience has shown that it is dangerous to start from general propositions and proceed deductively, both because the propositions may be untrue and because the reasoning based upon them may be fallacious. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment. From a number of such facts a theory is arrived at.

Science is always tentative, expecting modification in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary. It thus encourages abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and its replacement by the pursuit for what may be called “technical” truth that can be successively employed in inventions or in predicting the future.

The orientation of metaphysics or religion is different. It yearns to know, rather than to bring about change. There are two methods of challenging it. First, since deduction is its mode of inference, a conclusion can be refuted by pointing out logical fallacy in its process of argument or by identifying inadequacy of its basic premises. Second, a conclusion can be tested for validity by empirical verification of the conclusion or its corollary. The first method is usually more effective for big issues such as the varna discrimination in Hinduism. The second method is better used in cases of relatively small-scale hypothesis such as the effect of yoga. Here follows an example of application of the first method.

In Hindu theology, the system of varna hierarchy, seeks its authority by reference

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

to only one isolated stanza of the hymn, Purusa-Sukta (hymn of man), in the Rigveda. The stanza narrates how human beings emerged from the body of a cosmic giant, man, an oblation in the divine firesacrifice (‘yajna’), during the creation of the universe. “His mouth became the brahmans; his arms were made into the kshatriyas, his thighs the vaisyas, and from his feet the sudras came”.8 The Veda does not do rank-ordering of the four varnas, nor does it contain any benchmark for hierarchy.

The post-vedic tradition, however, imported from outside the Veda the following postulate: the height of the point of origin of a varna in the body of the cosmic giant, man, measures the social status of the varna. So the brahman, having been born at the highest point, namely, mouth, gets the highest status, followed by kshatriyas, vaisyas and sudras in that descending sequence.

This model of varna classification violates the letter and spirit of the Vedas. For the next two stanzas of the same hymn say that the earth (like the sudras) was born at the feet of man, but by no means does the Rigveda rank the earth inferior to anyone in the pantheon. Rather, being the dual to the heaven, the earth is worshipped by all with the highest esteem.

The Rigveda did not accept the rule of rank-ordering by the coordinates of one’s origin in the cosmic giant’s body. Indeed, it did not admit any hierarchy at all. In short, the notion of varna discrimination is un-Vedic, if not anti-Vedic.

Manu noticed the anomaly. He strived to close the loophole in two steps. Manusmriti introduced a dichotomy in terms of “purity” and “impurity” or “polluted” and “unpolluted”. It arbitrarily declared: “the orifices [openings, holes] of the body above the navel are all pure, but those below are impure”. Another assertion followed: “a man is said to be purer above the navel; therefore the selfexistent one said his [man’s] mouth was the purest part of him”.9 To us, the use of the word “therefore” here looks unwarranted, for nowhere is there syllogism of logical deduction.

Now comes the varna-supreme. Manusmriti continues: “the priest is the lord of this whole creation, because he was born of the highest part of the body”. Again, to us, this swift shift from “purest” to “highest” is a bit puzzling.

Still the Manu model is incomplete, for both the vaisya and the sudra had emanated from below the level of navel of the cosmic giant. But there is no yardstick yet to determine their relative standing.

Undaunted, Manu went on to put the vaisya ahead the sudra, without clarification why.

There is no apparent justification to consider the mouth as “purest” among the holes of human body. We know doctors investigate usually the mouth of a patient for diagnosis. Maybe, the harmful bacteriacount of mouth exceeds that of any other part of the body. If so, the mouth could be the foulest, rather than the purest.

Manu does not elaborate what constitutes purity in the first place. His concept of purity is weird. Here are some illustrative quotes from Manusmriti: “a woman’s mouth, a girl’s breast, a child’s prayer, and the smoke of the sacrifice, are always pure”. “There is nothing purer than the light of the sun, the shadow of a cow, air, water, fire, and a girl’s breath”. “Only in the case of a girl is the whole body pure”. “A woman’s mouth is always unpolluted, as is a bird that knocks down a fruit; a cow is unpolluted while the milk is flowing, a dog is unpolluted when it catches a wild animal”. “Garlic, scallions, onions, and mushrooms, and the things that grow from what is impure, are not to be taken by twice-born men”. “The Sama Veda is traditionally said to belong to the ancestors, and thus the sound of it is polluted”.

Manu’s touchstone, “purity”, is incoherent, meaningless. So his model of varna and caste is illogical. Rational belief: “Beliefs, especially those beliefs that answer existential questions regarding birth and death, misfortune and good fortune, right and wrong, have a life of their own”, writes Nanda. “Beliefs don’t simply lie down and die when social context changes, instead they mutate, and adapt tothe new social context”. This we consider a very perceptive insight. We pursue this clue.

Experience indicates that we can regard our moral convictions as necessarily rooted not in reason as such, but rather in one or several traditions of moral thought and practice that are historically contingent, and that we can elaborate and even change in part, but never completely leave behind, on pain of losing our moral bearings. This image of the moral life views man as a being whose moral sense is always historically conditioned.10

This is our response to Kant’s lament: “human reason has the peculiar fate that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason”.11 We recognise the form of life to which we belong and acknowledge the moral traditions that we share and see as sustaining a set of duties. We no longer suppose that we must reason from an absolutely detached point of view, but rely instead upon the presumed validity of our other moral beliefs, which function as the base upon which reason stands and operates, thereby resolving Kant’s problem.

We need not justify all our beliefs. But we can scrutinise a possible change of a belief, all other beliefs held constant. For that, we observe the performance of many communities who subscribe a variety of beliefs, some closer to ours, some farther away. We estimate the likely consequences of the proposed change, and charge reason with the responsibility of judging if the incremental benefit justifies the change. So the choice will be rational, being approved by reason. Thus we get rational belief. We repeat the process over time and over beliefs – one by one, step by step.12 This theory of rational belief works.




1 Immanuel Kant (1793), ‘Religion within theBoundaries of Mere Reason’, Religion andRational Theology, Cambridge UniversityPress, 1996, p 140.

2 Immanuel Kant (1785), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Cambridge UniversityPress, 2003, p 31.

3 Paul Wolff, Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays, Notre Dame University Press, 1967, p xiii.

4 Immanuel Kant (1784), ‘Idea for a UniversalHistory with a Cosmopolitan Intent’, PerpetualPeace and Other Essays, Hacket Publishing,1983, p 30.

5 Charles Larmore, The Morals of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p 49.

6 By the general theory of relativity: E = mc2, where E is energy, m the mass of matter, c the velocity of light. It means matter releases,under certain conditions, a proportionateamount of energy.

7 S P Dasgupta, ‘Einstein Dialogue: In the Contextof World Year of Physics 2005’, Biplab B Basu(ed), Legacy of Einstein, School of Fundamental Research, 2006.

8 Wendy O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda, Penguin,1981; Ranjit Sau, ‘Hindutva Tattva or theTheory of Hindutva’, Frontier, 37(23),December 26, 2004.

9 Wendy Doniger, The Laws of Manu, Penguin,1991; Ranjit Sau, ‘Manu’s Curse’, Frontier, 38(4), January 1, 2006.

10 Larmore, op cit, p 56.

11 Immanuel Kant (1781), Critique of PureReason, Cambridge University Press, 1998,p 99.

12 The mathematical structure of our model of rational relief is as follows. Suppose ourwell-being depends upon a set of beliefs. Insymbol, y =f (a, b, c … x), where y is wellbeing; a, b, c … x are beliefs; and f denotes a function representing the relationship betweenthe variables. It is hard to know function f(…)as a whole, it is easier to estimate a partialderivative of y with reference to, say, x, which measures the incremental benefit due to a unit change in belief x. Reason is called upon tojudge whether to approve the change in x. The choice being recommended by reason, we havea rational belief.

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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