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Can Scientists be Fanatics?
( Oct 30 2015 )
In 2007, Richard Dawkins (author of 'God Delusion') presented a two-part program on Channel 4 in U.K. entitled 'The Enemies of Reason'; for him all those who did not subscribe to reason, as enunciated by science, were pedalling dogma and superstition and were 'impoverishing' our culture, and running away from 'reality'.
The title of Dr. Dawkins' program, and its mode, I am sad to note, has the same streak of fanaticism as is shown by those who talk about the "Enemies of God", or "Enemies of Revolution", or "Enemies of People;" it arises from the same self-righteous arrogance.
Moreover, it is utterly 'unreasonable', however broadly one may understand 'reason.'
In 1946, the great Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher, made a sketch of his own eye, reflected in a convex mirror; in its pupil, he inserted a human skull gawking at us, because, in his own words, "we are all confronted with death." 
A half century earlier, in 1897, French artist Paul Gauguin created a large painting in Tahiti, considered by many as his great masterpiece, entitled: "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"
It is a haunting work of exquisite beauty with brooding images of life and its withering. Such existential questions about life and its pangs, about death and its inevitability, about meaning and purpose of human existence in the universe -- have been the warp and weft of literature and the arts for millennia; they are also intricately and subtly woven in our myths and folklore. Great achievements in science and medicine over the past several hundred years have not lessened the poignancy of these questions; they stare us in our face in the early years of the twenty-first century with the same urgency as they may have done two or five thousand years ago.
 Escher's 'Eye' was created in 1946, soon after the most gruesome war in the human history, a war propelled by racial and political hatreds, and also, no less by new 'advances' in science and technology -- in biological warfare, and in the development and use of atomic weapons, by the great geniuses of science who were fully committed to the creed of 'reason'.
And Gauguin created his masterpiece in 1897 in a remote island and amongst people barely touched by modern civilization. He did this possibly quite unaware of, or perhaps oblivious to, the debates and discussions swirling around the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's great book 'On the Origin of Species' that set out to establish the scientific foundation for the origin and evolution of life.
Was Gaugin propounding dogma? Or was he raising eternal questions that were beyond the pale of science?
Attempts to reflect on human life and its frailties, and to comprehend them with certain serenity, have proceeded, sometimes hand-in-hand, with great strides in science -- in biology, in medicine and in genetics in particular. There is no denying, for instance, that 1953 was an extraordinary year in the history of molecular biology because it was then that the double helix structure of DNA molecule was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge.
But equally, 1948 was, and continues to be, an even more momentous year because in that year, on December 10, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and declared, affecting the life and destiny of humankind all over the globe for decades and centuries to come.
There is a story told about the pioneering physicist Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge University towards the end of the First World War. He once failed to attend a meeting of the British committee of experts appointed to advise on new systems of defence against the enemy submarines. When he was censured for his absence, he retorted without embarrassment: "Talk softly, please. I have been engaged in experiments that suggest that the atom can be artificially disintegrated. If it is true, it is of far greater importance than a war."
It was about the same time, as young Albert Einstein returned to Germany from Switzerland, that he saw how his German colleagues in the scientific community were using their genius in creating poisonous gases that were to kill hundreds of thousands like flies.
These scientists were all men of reason, but was there something amiss? "Nationalism," Einstein asserted, "is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression."
Sadly, men of reason can reason their way in and out of unethical situations with great dexterity.
Wars and dictators come and go, said Albert Einstein, but "a mathematical equation stands forever."
"The truth of life" -- if such a phrase can be used in the age of science -- must be a many splendored phenomenon; it is illuminated, grasped and beheld by infinite sights and insights, of poets no less than of molecular biologists; if a mathematical equation stands forever, words uttered a thousand years ago by a poet or a sage can also haunt like some cosmic force, for centuries to come.
The human eye, even as it gazes outside -- often aided by powerful instruments created by science -- is also forever looking within. Indeed, as it probes the universe in all its grandeur and complexity, it also forever, and ceaselessly, envisions that universe anew. It is not only 'what is' that enraptures it; it is also 'what ought to be' that enshrines its insights and foresights in the "'mind's eye".
It is thus that our moral life and its hundred different facets -- justice, freedom, honour, human dignity, meaning and purpose, rights and duties, dharma and karma -- assert themselves, and draw their rationale and inspiration from religions and cultures, from myths and literature, from customs and habits, from dialogue and debate, and from the vicissitudes of life itself, and in turn, create dreams and visions of human destiny, however flawed, however ephemeral.
Four hundred years ago, in 1609 in Venice, as Galileo was beholding the 'beautiful and delightful' body of the moon through a telescope, he complained bitterly against "the principal professor of philosophy who I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon through my glass [telescope], which he pertinaciously refuses to do."
 How to look at the universe differently, and with a different set of eyes, is our perennial challenge. For some those eyes are only of reason and of science. But when one sees with the eyes of empathy and oneness, the universe reveals itself imbued with such beauty and grace that it transcends reason, and we find an entirely new reason for the grandeur of existence.
- sehdev kumar 
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