Saturday, November 05, 2005

Doubts are undoubtedly important

That was Amartya Sen's seemingly paradoxical dictum at the end of a brilliant hour long lecture at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, yesterday evening, titled "Science, Argument and Scepticism". Sen's talk, very serious in theme, somewhat heavy with quotations from ancient Indian texts, but frequently punctuated with great humuor, charmed the 1500 strong audience that included many luminaries from different walks of life. R and I were there on Uma's invitation, and we had an extremely satisfying evening out there.

A major part of the talk was based on parts of his magnificent work -- The Argumentative Indian, sprinkled often with entertaining anecdotes. He said the title could look a bit intriguing but there are at least two reasons for him to bring this topic up. Firstly, argument and scepticism are central for the two way relationship between science and society. Science generates knowledge. Now knowledge could be practically useful to the society. Or its purpose could be to quench curiosity, even idle curiosity. The latter aspect is no less important than the former aspect. The point of science is also to ask new questions that the society has to face. On the other hand it is the unwillingness of the society to remain satisfied that propels science. Secondly, Sen wants to trace the relationships among science, argument and scepticism in the phenomenally rich Indian intellectual tradition. This first of all springs out of personal curiosity. But this is also essential as the perception of our past is dominated currently by two opposing trends. One is the sectarian voice of the traditionalists which includes the advocates of the Hindutva. The other is the historical naivety of the obdurate modernists. If one is forced to choose between the two, Sen would undoubtedly choose to side with the modernists. But why choosing between these two, when we can do much better, Sen asks.

That we can do better is apparent when we begin to reexamine India's intellectual history. India has had a truly exceptional legacy which is fairly comprehensively neglected. A legacy of questioning, verifying, infering, a legacy of the pursuit of truth. This legacy is rejected by the tradionalists as they want to emphasize only on faith. Faith suits them, but, not doubts. This legacy is rejected by the modernists as well, who do not wish to go beyond Western knowledge.

Sen now spends considerable time and effort to scrutinize the available ancient texts. His many examples include themes from the Rig Veda, the philosophy of Buddhism and Buddhist texts, the rich Indian atheistic tradition, the Lokayata, the Carvakas, their texts as summarized by Madhavacharya in the Sarvadarsanasamgraha, the stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha and other literary texts. Then there's the large corpus of scientific and technical writing in Sanskrit, for instance, Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, and Varahamihira. Sen's companion in closely understanding their period is Al Biruni. In fact Sen rates Al Biruni's Tarikh-al-Hind as the best text on India that he has ever read. This part of the talk was intellectually stimulating as well as taxing. I have read The Argumentative Indian, and yesterday I attended Sen's talk, but I must admit that I have acquired only a nodding acquaintance with this central part of the talk, and I would direct an interested reader to The Argumentative Indian as well as the many references therein.

What's the persistent feeling that one gets after a perusal of all these material? There's a rich history of scepticism in ancient India and this has played a constructive role in the spectacular success of ancient Indian science. Conversely, ancient Indian science has played a constructive role in the growth of scepticism. Amartya Sen also stressed the point that the connections that one is trying to establish are intellectual and not always documented. We need to find newer methods for a better understanding of this facet of our past. But as Sen said at one point, "motivation is half the battle". Perhaps taking note of the controversies that his book has generated in the intellectual circles, Sen did not forget to assert that we cannot and should not justify contemporary policy by invoking historical tradition. That'll be the wrong way to shape today's policy. For instance, even if we did not have a tradition of science and mathematics, we need to develop these subjects, because our present demands that.

Amartya Sen ended his talk by stressing the role of scepticism in the field of social sciences. In the social sciences, the very formulation of questions need to take care of the inherent ambiguities. The aim of good research should also be to plant new questions. Narrow specialisations, more often than not, are counterproductive. He mentioned his own work on famines to shed light on the role of scepticism. One had to doubt the prevailing wisdom, had to start thinking counterintuitively to finally conclude that famines have not much to do with the supply of food, but they have more to do with lack of entitlement and gainful employment.

Sen remarked that the same way we may be able to get new insights into the topic of women's skills and abilities if we go beyond the hold of established beliefs about women's inferiority. We need to take a shift in the establishment approach, and he felt that the statistics of how women have performed in a specific field under the current establishment may not have much relevance in understanding this topic. His second example where we could get new insights was regarding the problem of ill health, specifically the dichotomy between self perception and medical examination.

This excellent talk was followed by a lively Q & A session. Free of the written document, where he could only insert a funny comment here or there, now Sen was at his humuorous best. The session saw his remarks about the value neutrality of science, the distinction between good science and bad science, why the scepticism of the materialists, and not that of the spiritualists or the idealists, is more important in the Indian context, his own interests in mathematics ("pure" mathematics is more useful to an economist than "applied" math as "applied" math grew with applications in physics in mind), investments in basic research, Thomas Kuhn, the possible absence of the spirit of give and take in medieval and modern Indian intellectual scene, scepticism vis a vis ensuring decisive actions, the question of population in India, and the role of the President of India!

Note 1. This is a free rendering of some of the main points of Amartya Sen's talk, as I understood it. There could be mistakes, significant or otherwise. You are welcome to point it out, if you find any.

Note 2. My post about Sen's book The Argumentative Indian is here. It's actually an attempt to critique Ram Guha's review of Sen's book. Links to Guha's review and a few other reviews are also there.

Note 3. The high tea that followed also saw a mini blogger (& blogger-spouse) meet. R and I had some nice discussions with Uma MD and A, Rashmi Bansal and Y, and Matthew Daniels.

Update: The Hindu has a good report of Amartya Sen's talk at TIFR.


At 6:28 PM, Blogger Sunil said...

excellent. Was looking fwd to your write up on this.

One thing though is not yet clear to me. Amartya Sen dwells in detail on the argumentative tradition in india, the tradition of science and skepticism, as well as introspection.

But the present Indian society has almost certainly lost most of these traits. It is undoubtedly true that this used to be there, but is not there now. How does Amartya Sen imagine these attributes can be re-introduced (and made to thrive) in Indian society today? I don't see discussion of that (in the posts i've read about his book, or in his interviews etc. I haven't read his book, so i don't know if it gets in to that).

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Qalandar said...

Great post...The Argumentative Indian is indeed a welcome effort in these times. My own review is below:

At 12:27 AM, Blogger Rashmi Bansal said...

Very well summarised - you would have made a great reporter :) I am planning to write a slightly more personal account on my blog... but rite now am sleepy after a nice Sunday lunch.

At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks Sunil. It's a good question, and a serious question. As one can imagine there are no easy answers. I don't think Amartya Sen has stressed the reasons for the decline of Indian intellectual tradition. But if you are willing to argue along the central theory that he puts forward, i.e., scepticism and science progress together one helping the growth of the other, it's possible to argue that excessive religiosity and mysticism which grew in India curtailed genuine sceptical (and scientific) thinking. Quoting Al Biruni, Sen gives the example of Aryabhata and Brahmagupta for example. Aryabhata was not just a great mathematician, but was also a thought leader. He was fearless in questioning the orthodoxy. Brahmagupta was even a greater mathematician (who comes after Aryabhata). But by his time it became more difficult to question the orthodoxy. He did the right things, but he had to wear a mask supporting the orthodoxy as well. Thus as the orthodoxy grew to become more influential, genuine scientific thought suffered a great deal. In Sen's language, "faith" became more important than "doubts".

Later the western science had a phenomenal growth. The colonial rulers weren't really interested in encouraging genuine scientific thinking here. Macaulay's education had no serious science content. Whatever little they brought here also found strong resistance as many Indians thought we needed to resist everything foreign. A proper "give and take" did not take place unfortunately.

If Sen is right, we can progress in science only when we have an atmosphere where critical thinking is encouraged. I think it's right to believe that a free society which can fearlessly question the orthodoxy is necessary for the growth of science.

Thanks Qalandar. I liked your post very much. Wonderful effort. I have linked to it in my post on The Argumentative Indian as well.

Thanks Rashmi. Looking fwd to your post.

At 4:37 AM, Blogger Abi said...

Thanks, Anand, for this wonderful post. After reading the Hindu's report on Sen's lecture at TIFR, I was wondering who among the Mumbai bloggers would have been there. Now I know.

Since I am also in the middle of reading Argumentative Indian, I was hoping that you went there and would post about it. And, sure enough ...

Thanks again.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

[i]This legacy is rejected by the modernists as well, who do not wish to go beyond Western knowledge.[/i]

What practical difference, do you think, will recognizing such a legacy make? And by western knowledge are you referring to only recognizing a particular aspect of Indian history? Or are you claiming that shaping one's attitudes and evolving one's paradigms based merely on the "western knowledge" we imbibe today from schools and universities would ( to some degree however small ) prevent us from advancing scientifically or however?

Or is it that recognizing ancient Indian legacy is important to quench curiosity, an "aspect" you consider as important as practical utility ( I would consider that as dogma, though )?


At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think this "western POV" we keep referring to is not really western at all, this rootless sensibility comes from the changes in indian tradition and the disparity that exists between the talk and the walk? the talk being the ties to the past that seem to be shadows of reassurance rather than the stepping stones to a diverse and stronger future, and the walk being the scietific ramifications on what we believed we should follow?

I wish i was there, sounds very incredible.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Sunil said...

If Sen is right, we can progress in science only when we have an atmosphere where critical thinking is encouraged. I think it's right to believe that a free society which can fearlessly question the orthodoxy is necessary for the growth of science.

Absolutely, and i'll easily agree. But my question is more fundamental. How does one recreate a society that can fearlessly question orthodoxy? How does one go about reintroducing a scientific temper? What kind of action is needed to bring about this transformation? And where does one start?

I don't think we have answers to that.....but we do need to search for them.

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Many thanks, Abi.

froginthewell -- Well, to my mind, a better understanding of our past is important in itself.

But recognising a great legacy may have other benefits. Perhaps it can be argued that one reason why Indians tend to settle for less, Indians tend to perform below their potential, is that we have been constantly told, and this has entered our mindset, that we are not "culturally" good at innovating. The right antidote to this negative mindset is not parroting the slogan that "everything is there in the Vedas", but, a careful and rigourous analysis of our past. We should know how much of what we are told about ourselves is true. We should also realise the ugly face of our past. The truth ultimately should be of help in one way or the other.

Anonymous -- I have a feeling that I vaguely agree with you, but I don't think I have fully understood what you are trying to say.

Sunil -- Of course we don't have clear answers to those questions. But if we understand the ebb and flow of that phase of questioning the orthodoxy, over the centuries, over different societies, ours being one that can offer a lot, surely that understanding will help?

Whereas intellectuals should delve deeper into that aspect of our past and see what one can come up with, on a practical level, we need to appreciate that Indian science has benefitted from the political independence and the institutional support that it has got since then.

Definitely Sen is into something very interesting. Hopefully he motivates enough youngsters to have a careful look at some of the questions he asks or publicises. There have been attempts to do a Joseph Needham in India, albeit in a relatively minor way. By asking interesting and challenging questions, Sen is also trying to publicise these earlier efforts.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

Anand, I think study of history has only done damage to India that way. It is well and fine to argue that correct perspective on history will rectify a lot of defects in our attitudes but the assumption that people will ever get a correct perspective on history is incredibly dogmatic. Even today "Indian history" reminds people of caste system, manu smrti, treatment of women etc. while "Greek history" reminds one of Archimedes, Socrates, Aristotle etc. Both western and Indian historians are to blame for this. See here.

There is another dangerous angle to seeking to rectify complexes through historical studies; because your argument is something like "We aren't bad either because we haven't done much worse than others". So what are people from those cultures to do, who for understandable historical reasons no genuine achievements to boast of have been found ( let us say, the aborigines of the Andaman and Nicobar islands )?

Also, I don't think many traditionalists parrot "Everything is in the vedas". The bhagavAn himself says in the gIta :
"yAm imAm puShpitAm vAcam pravadyantyavipashcitaH
vEdavAdaratAH pArtha nAnyadastIti vAdinaH"
i.e. the ignorant people who speak these flowery words are those who delight in the word of the vEda and say there is nothing else.

The argument about innovation and doing really well applies really to middleclass Indians. And among them I do see this kind of inferiority complex but I have never seen superstition as a deterring factor in their studies. In fact many of our greatest scientists and engineers are superstitious.

At 2:11 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

froginthewell -- I think I don't have much to add on what I've already said. Regarding the last para of your comment, I have a feeling that there's a need to distinguish between superstitious individuals and superstitious societies. In a general atmosphere of scientific inquiry, perhaps an individual's superstition may not matter much as one can easily compartmentalise this superstitious side of one's life with his/her professional life. That may not be the case if the overall atmosphere is not conducive to critical thinking.

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