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