In my previous article, I argued - using Darwin as an example - that apart from a few counterexamples like Ashis Nandy, Indian intellectuals have not engaged with major scientific thinkers in a critical but productive manner. This article continues that line of investigation (I apologise to the reader in advance for introducing technical vocabulary; the issues simply cannot be discussed without brining in a bit of jargon).
We find that when we move past the obvious clichés such as 'science is international' or 'western ways of thinking are alien to the Indian mind' we do not have a well-thought-out response to the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins of the world. Indeed, in the scientific class such a question is close to being nonsensical. After all, if Newton discovered the true structure of the world, that truth does not vary from Cambridge to Kolkata. The only thing we can do is learn Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian evolution from our teachers and our textbooks. On the other end of the spectrum are those who reject western science as patriarchal, a despoiler of nature and inherently tied to the colonial enterprise of domination of non-western peoples.
Science is either the unalloyed truth or a surrogate for power. In both situations, any critical discussion of Darwin as a thinker becomes impossible. That said, there are some signs of a critically aware reading of western thinkers in the works of scholars such as Ashis Nandy.
Like Gandhi before him, Nandy is skeptical about the claims of modern science. He sees the lust for domination beneath the hood of the mechanical beast. At the same time, Nandy has used Freud creatively to analyse those very shortcomings of modern science. One may think this use of a scientific thinker to critique science is hypocritical or plain contradictory. However, in my opinion, the mark of a critical engagement with another tradition is the ability to use that tradition's resources to expose its inner tensions. The use of Freud to critique the dangers of positivism is simultaneously subversive and insightful. Freud was a psychologist, the preeminent theorist of a field that traffics in inherently subjective phenomena. The possibilities for interpretation and engagement are many. An engagement with 'objective science' is another task all together.
A false distinction
Perhaps we should start our engagement with objective science by questioning and ultimately rejecting the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. In my opinion, this distinction between a public, objective world and an inner, subjective world is itself an artifact of western history and is nothing but Church metaphysics making a comeback in secular form. Church doctrine makes a strict division between man and nature, the divine and the worldly. Secular science keeps these distinctions, with a few suitable modification; divinity is removed, but there is still a distinction between humans and nature.
The objective world, i.e., nature, is open to investigation without any boundaries. The controlled experiment in idealised laboratory conditions is the paradigm for objective investigation. Nature, since it consists purely of objects, has no rights or responsibilities. It is entirely available for exploitation. This purely instrumental use of nature, which is both left-wing as well as right-wing dogma, is strangely enough nothing but the old Biblical idea of human dominion over nature in secular garb. According to this dogma, only human beings (if at all anyone) are exempt from exploitation, for we have a soul. We have a consciousness that needs protection, a subjective point of view that deserves freedom.
From this distinction between the objective world of nature and the subjective world of humans follow all the modern protections we enjoy. The division between humans and nature has also been institutionalised in the departmental structure of modern academia, as 'science' versus 'humanities'. Scientists study objects, while humanities professors study subjects.
In my opinion, not only is this division between an outer world of 'things out there' and an inner world of 'thoughts and feelings' a false distinction rooted in a particular historical trajectory, it is also pernicious. Several modern western thinkers such as Bruno Latour have questioned this distinction between subject and object, but here I want to highlight a stream of criticism that takes its inspiration from Darwin as well as Indian thought (both classical and modern).
An ideal inquiry
From Blake to Thoreau and Gandhi, many thinkers have pointed out that there is a heartless machine at the core of industrial society. In an era where environmentalism and global warming are some of the greatest issues, the division of the world into natural objects and human subjects is both ethically flawed and empirically untenable. The mechanical model of nature which underwrites modern post-industrial society is not a 'fact'; nor are its opponents 'unscientific'. Here again, Darwin can point us towards a different kind of science.
Darwinian biology is naturalistic without being mechanistic - indeed, one of the major challenges posed to the Darwinians has always been that of finding mechanisms that flesh out natural selection. Secondly, Darwin has clearly made a stark difference between human subjects and natural objects untenable. Finally, Darwin's scientific methodology was observational rather than experimental, a methodology that requires a sensitive observer who marshals a convincing narrative rather than a mechanical collector of data. Of all major scientific developments, Darwinian biology alone has not spawned revolutions in the name of science or ever more destructive bombs.
The Darwinian method is perhaps an ideal combination of inquiry rooted in sharp observation of local conditions along with a capacious and universal vision. I believe that Gandhi, charkha in hand, would approve of the theoretical and the methodological aspects of Darwin. Indeed, since this is also the hundredth anniversary of Hind Swaraj, it might be a fruitful exercise to read Gandhi and Darwin side by side.
Gandhi, charkha in hand, would approve of the theoretical and the methodological aspects of Darwin.
Consider a knowledge system like Ayurveda, which is clearly a naturalistic system of knowledge: it is this-worldly and driven by outcomes rather than metaphysics. Ayurveda has a model of the human body and its relationship to nature. This model of the body is neither objective nor subjective, but rather combines both elements. The Ayurvedic model also does not draw a strong line between humans and other species. Further, the Ayurvedic model is not mechanical. Unlike studies of consciousness and meditation which one could claim are tainted by their association with religion, Ayurveda works well enough that its explanatory scheme must have some validity. Given all this, how should Ayurvedic specialists engage with modern science?
An obvious mode of engagement is to look for physiological mechanisms validating ayurvedic findings. However, I think that mode of engagement is mistaken; not because Ayurveda is Indian and physiology western, but because it has almost never happened that a scientific discipline considered more 'basic' has validated another scientific discipline considered more 'applied'. Chemists in the nineteenth century were continuously being pressured to validate their findings with the dominant science of the day, i.e., physics, but the major advances in chemistry of the nineteenth century such as Mendeleev's periodic table were autonomous discoveries without any basis in nineteenth century physics. As it turns out, nineteenth century physics was incapable of addressing the problems of chemistry; it took the discovery of quantum mechanics before physics could advance to that stage.
We should be at least as generous with Ayurveda as physicists were with chemists, i.e., to assume that Ayurveda is a semi-autonomous system of knowledge that will at some point be integrated with other branches of biology. At the same time, we have to be modern enough to accept that Caraka and Sushruta are not the last words on the topic, that some of the core conceptions in Ayurveda are in need of revision.
This in turn poses the all important question: what is it to carry on the Ayurvedic tradition without accepting the classical sources as definitive? I do not have an answer to that question, only an exhortation: that modern Indians keep the option open that these classical sources have some genuine naturalistic insight, and that we should not reject them as unscientific for all that reveals is our own mechanistic prejudice, which is very far from a truly scientific cast of mind.