Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Intellectual Treason

New Humanist Jan 07, 05
Unless we understand the ideological mechanism of this sacralisation of politics, we will not be able to combat the ongoing coups against secularism under nominally secular democracies.As a student of the history and philosophy of science, I have been watching with concern how modern science itself — perhaps the single most powerful force for secularisation — is being re–coded as sacred, either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as ‘lower knowledge’ of ‘dead matter’, in need of spiritualisation. As an old–time partisan of the Enlightenment and scientific temper, I have been watching with concern as my fellow intellectuals and activists, in the United States and India, who identify themselves with social justice, anti–imperialism, women’s rights and sustainable development, have themselves paved the way for re–enchantment or re–sacralisation of science.
Contemporary theories of physics, evolution and biology were wilfully distorted to make it look as if all of modern science was converging to affirm the New Age, mind–over–matter cosmology that follows from Vedantic monism. ‘Evidence’ from fringe sciences was used to support all kinds of superstitions, from vastu, astrology, ‘quantum healing’ to the latest theory of Vedic creationism. Science and ‘Vedas’ were treated as homologues, as just different names of the same thing. Orwell’s Big Brother would’ve felt right at home!Another sign of doublespeak was this:
  • On the one hand, the BJP and its allies presented themselves as great champions of science, as long as it could be absorbed into ‘the Vedas’, of course.
  • On the other hand, they aggressively condemned the secular and naturalistic worldview of science — the disenchantment of nature — as ‘reductionist’, ‘Western’ or even ‘Semitic’ and therefore un–Hindu and un–Indian. Science yes, and technology yes, but a rational–materialist critique of Vedic idealism no — that became the mantra of Hindutva.

Why this over–eagerness to claim the support of science? There is a modernising impulse in all religions to make the supposedly timeless truths of theology acceptable to the modern minds raised on a scientific sensibility. Contemporary Hindu nationalists are carrying on with the neo–Hindu tradition of proclaiming Hinduism as the universal religion of the future because of its superior ‘holistic science’ (as compared to the ‘reductionist science’ of the West.) Besides, it is easier to sell traditions and rituals, especially to urban, upwardly mobile men, if they have the blessings of English–speaking ‘scientific’ gurus.Granted, this business of Vedic science had been going on before anyone had ever heard the word ‘postmodern’. But this Hindu nationalist appropriation of science has found new sources of intellectual respectability from the postmodernist, anti–Enlightenment turn taken by intellectuals, most radically in American universities, but also in India. What do I mean by postmodernism and how did it play out in India?

Postmodernism encompasses a wide variety of theoretical discourses, touching on everything from literature and history to architecture. What unites them is a suspicion of universal knowledge. Modern science, being the ideal type of such knowledge, naturally became a target of postmodernist critics. Sure, there were many critics of this universal science, including prominent scientists themselves before the advent of postmodernism, but their criticisms were leveled at the abuses of science, not at its logic. As disillusionment with the military–industrial complex grew in the West in the wake of the Vietnam war and civil rights struggles, the top–down model of development in India led to a radical critique of science, in which its claims to objectivity and universality were questioned.
In India well–known public intellectuals Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Shiv Vishvanathan, Claude Alvares and others condemned modern science as being innately barbaric, violent and even genocidal because of its reductionism and its imposition of western interests and values in collusion with westernised Indian elite. But the critique of science and technology that emerged out of the so–called ‘Delhi school of science studies’ was not limited to uses or abuses of science: it questioned the content and methodology of science as we know it. No one can deny that there are alternative, culture–dependent descriptions of nature: the world is full of a vast variety of such descriptions. Given this diversity, can we not say that modern science provides us a closer, a more approximate representation of nature which is more adequately supported by evidence and logic? Not so, according to its critics, because the standards of truth and falsity are also relative to the ‘form of life’ of a culture. They justify developing a science in accord with the Vedic cosmology as an attempt to decolonise the ‘Hindu mind’ of western, Semitic–monotheistic influences.
Indeed, scholar–activists sympathetic to the Hindu worldview, including Rajiv Malhotra and Koenard Elst routinely cite the writings of Ashis Nandy, Ronald Inden and even Gayatri Spivak as allies in a shared project of understanding India through Hindu categories. Like the postmodernist supporters of ethno–sciences, they do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they declare them to be lower–level truths, because they merely deal with dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian world view of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double–blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind–stuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is.
But in the Vedic science discourse, the overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of ‘knowledge filtration’ by western–trained scientists. Take the example of the emerging theory of ‘Vedic creationism’ (which updates the spiritual evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, claim that Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being products of the western ontological assumptions, have been systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory of ‘devolution of species’ from the Brahman through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account, Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as plausible and defensible as Darwinism, grounded on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists. Vedic creationism is only one example of ‘decolonised science’.
Postmodernism represents a treason of the clerks which has given intellectual respectability to reactionary religiosity. With the best intentions of giving marginalised social groups — especially if they were women and if they belonged to the non–western world —the right to their own ways of knowing, western academics, in alliance with populist Third Worldist intellectuals, have succeeded in painting science and modernity as the enemy of the people. Rather than encourage and nurture a critical spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle against science and against the spirit of the Enlightenment itself. As the case of Vedic science in the service of Hindu nationalism in India demonstrates, this misguided attack on the Enlightenment has only aided the growth of pseudoscience, superstitions and tribalism. read/post comments

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