10 October 2014

Of Religion and Science

I have been reading a very interesting book these days. "The Trouble With Physics" by Lee Smolin. Yesterday, I hit a very interesting part of the book. One that deals with the formation of cults within the scientific community and the curbing of free thought. But first, I think a little context is at hand. Lee Smolin tries to explain the recent developments in Physics (post Einstein mostly) and closely dissects the string theory and presents it to the layman. To cut the long story short, he tries to show how the string theory community has turned into a dogmatic herd which prosecutes any outsider for non compliance. How they hold most of the academic positions and research grants at their disposal and are, in effect, snuffing out other branches of science. He also talks of the administrative problems that dog the academia and make the entire environment stale and repelling for radical thinkers. But that is not the aspect that I am interested in. I will pick up the former for there is a comparison I wish to make. Reading the book gave me a giddy feeling. I have not read good philosophical physics in quite a while. The last was probably Hawking's 'Brief History of Time' back in college, though I did read a couple of updates on the 'Theories of Everything' since. While Lee Smolin was emphatically describing how the string theory had hijacked the science community for the past 25 years and things were not being done in the healthy "scientific" spirit, my mind was racing back to what I had learnt as a kid back in school. I was thinking about how my view of science had changed over the years and how in a recent discussion with a colleague I had proposed my latest take on science and religion. But let us get on with the task at hand. There is a comparison I have to make.

A couple of days back we were back at an old discussion at my work place regarding the constitution and origin of the Hindu religion. It has happened before and there are usually two people with views sufficiently contradictory to battle it out : M and me. But this time was different. M cut me short abruptly and told be he wasn't interested in my point of view unless there was a Veda to back it up. He said that the Vedas were the only thing he trusted when it came to the truth about Vedas themselves. We had previously had a discussion around what is believable as a source of truth. It had boiled down to M thinking that something in itself is it's authoritative source and me thinking that one cannot trust someone stating things about itself. Now to come to the comparison that I was trying to make. Lee Smolin described a behaviour of the string theory community that I have seen more than once in religious fanatics (M included). They are not open to discussion. They are unwilling to hypothesise a situation where they might be wrong. Their worlds are impervious to any change lest it be in the same direction.. Of course, that might be the very definition of fanaticism, but I am not yet finished.

As to why certain people show such a staunch adherence to their ideologies, there are many possible arguments : tendency to form groups or cults, deriving a sense of identity, or simply being at ease in a certain kind of a world. There are many reasons why people might choose to stick to an idea and defend it strongly and rather rudely when faced with opposition. Even Smolin agreed that the "string theorists" were simply doing what they naturally should, that is, defend a theory they believed in. Some to the extreme of proposing human inability to comprehend string theory and Intelligent Design as the ultimate theory that helps string theory's case. One could wonder why they put in so much effort just to come to a conclusion that has been around since we started pondering over the problem.

A more interesting observation is that this belief system varies widely from person to person. As M had once pointed out, everyone believes in something, if only his own head. M believes rather firmly in the Vedas. That is his source of truth. Nietzsche said that religion was a gross answer that would insult anyone who wishes to think for himself. Scientists are probably in that category. A breed of people looking for answers for things that they do not understand. The ones who would rather not think for themselves have the convenient excuse of a God. But wait, Intelligent Design has been endorsed by (erstwhile) scientists. Again, what makes these breeds so different?

Here is what I think about it. Science is not so much different from any other philosophy. A religion is a life philosophy that keeps to things that matter in daily life. There is a gross answer to the abstract questions like 'why does the earth revolve around the sun?' and 'what are black holes?'. God put them there for a reason he understands best. Religions tend to be more direct and explanatory about the day to day conduct of a man : conduct in society, importance of diet, etc. It is, I am very surprised to observe, a much pragmatic approach to life. Of course, some would say that religions are full of unnecessary customs and traditions. But if one looks into it, religions have evolved to stay current (I know M would fiercely disagree). At any given point of time the customs can be explained to have a reason. Those that do not have one, die a vestigial death in time. Science, on the other hand, offers more freedom to those who wish to think. Be it about the origin of universe or the reason why there are so many species on Earth. It is a branch of philosophy that lets you explore and choose from a vast variety of theories, whichever appeals to you the most. If none do, it lets you build up one of your own. If it is credible enough, you might find it being endorsed and furthered by fellow scientists. This would make science a favourite of romantics. People who like to dream and wonder about the hows and why of things that are more or less inconsequential. And of course you will find a branch of science dealing with every possible direction one can imagine in. Nature, the world around, the universe beyond, human brain, emotions, animal behaviour and what not! But eventually even scientists settle down to believe in an answer about the unknown.

There is a gross answer on one side and unlimited possibilities on the other. All of us lie somewhere in between. As M puts it, everyone believes in something. All that differs is one's taste and appetite.