Religion and Origin of Natural Sciences

My proposal addresses itself to the following observation: the natural sciences, as we know them today, arise in the western culture. What ‘natural sciences’ mean in the above statement is clarified by other sentences that say, for example, ‘the rest of the world has accepted the western science and technology..’ or ‘we need to learn science and technology form the west..’ When we make these kinds of statements, what do we have in mind? Do we suggest that we need to learn some scientific formula from the west, or that we have to learn the proof of a theorem from the west? We do not. We are looking at sciences at a different level of abstraction. We are suggesting that there is a way of going about the world that we need to learn from the west. My hypothesis about science and religion is pitched at this level of abstraction. That is to say, I answer the following question: in which way is the growth of sciences a cultural phenomenon?

It is important not to confuse the differing levels of abstraction. My hypothesis is not about the discovery of laws of planetary motion or the laws of gravitation. It does not allow the following kind of question: by studying the 1905 paper of Einstein, could we identify his culture? (Hitler called it Jewish physics, and these kinds of answers are not my answers.)

Formulate the following hypothetical question: If, say, a Newton or an Einstein were born in 900 AD, could they have formulated their scientific theories? Here is my answer: they might have written brilliant theological tracts but neither could have formulated their scientific theories for which they are known. Why? They lacked their predecessors and the (cognitive) social milieu required to raise the kind of research questions they did raise. Today, we do not have the faintest clue (except in very general terms) regarding how to go about answering this hypothetical question.

How to refute my hypothesis?

What would falsify even this fragmentary hypothesis? I think it is not possible to be precise about this: should India or China (say) have developed (over centuries) a broad layer of intellectuals who carried out scientific research in the natural sciences (even if they took a parallel path), then there is something wrong with my hypothesis.

Even here, there are many caveats. In my story, mathematics is tied to rituals; barring a catastrophe of unforeseen dimensions, doing sciences is a part of the western culture (that is why even events like the world wars did not destroy the sciences, whereas any such event would have snuffed out sciences if it was not a cultural phenomenon) and so on.

Let us (counterfactually) suppose that we find Einsteins’ theorem `proved’ in an Indian tract. What does this fact disprove? That anyone, anytime could discover anything anywhere? That science is not cumulative in any sense of the term? That our ideas of scientific progress are wrong? That Balu’s hypothesis (which presupposes some answers to the above questions) is wrong? Falsification is not a simple matter, despite how it gets formulated. (That is what philosophies of sciences teach us.)

One of the tricks in doing scientific research is to identify the right depth (or abstraction) in formulating the questions and testing the answers. This ability comes (I think) only by doing research and not in any other fashion. One of the most fruitful ways of testing my research hypothesis is by developing it and seeing where (and why) it breaks down. At that stage, such a criticism will itself contribute to the development of a better hypothesis. Is this not what science is, in some sense of the term?

Sciences in the Antiquity

With respect to the Antiquity, the question is not about Archimedes or Euclid. We need to say that sciences there were also a cultural phenomenon. We do have the beginnings of scientific thinking there; but they were neither consistent nor did they spread in the culture. Consequently, we need a hypothesis that explains both the similarity and the dissimilarity with the natural sciences (as we know them through their histories) of today. No researcher anywhere in the world knows how to raise the issue of the origin of the natural sciences. Given this context, I claim that my fragmentary hypothesis is better than my competitors: the ancient Greeks had an unstable configuration of learning, where both performative and theoretical learning were competing with each other. There is evidence both for competition (read the discussions in Plato and Aristotle about the `Bards’ or the story tellers); and for its instability (that is why the Greek culture disintegrated). This instability occurs because the Greeks did not have religion or rituals that bring about the configuration of learning. What my hypothesis does is to refocus our study of the Antiquity.

In other words, we need more than the presence of a book on Hydrostatics or Geometry before we can speak of natural sciences as a cultural phenomenon.

However, this hypothesis about the antiquity is itself a derived one. My study is not about the Greeks. The very fact that one can test my hypothesis about the cultural differences between India and the west can be tested by looking at the ancient Greeks testifies to the scientific nature of my endeavor. I know of not a single anthropological theory that can be tested in this fashion.

Theology and natural sciences

I suggest that we look at the phenomenon of Natural Sciences as a product of the western culture. However, this does not carry the implication that the scientific theories in the domain of Natural Sciences are constrained by theological assumptions. Newton, as an individual scientist, did hold religious beliefs; they surely helped him in developing his theories. However, that does not imply that understanding, accepting or developing his theory requires that one also holds similar (or identical) beliefs about God, Man and Universe.

Kerala Mathematics

From within my framework we cannot tell why Kerala, and not, say, Karnataka developed certain kind of Mathematics. But it should be possible to say why the Indian culture developed a Mathematics of a different kind than Newton. However, do not ask me to tell such a story. But I think it can be told. Before that, however, we need to come to grips with another question: how to write the history of cultures like India?

Islam and Natural Sciences

1. Religion generates a configuration of learning, which produces theoretical knowledge. It continuously reproduces this configuration of learning as well. That is to say, at every moment (in a manner of speaking), thanks to this configuration of learning, a revolution is possible that will (re)generate theoretical knowledge. Therefore, barring unforeseen catastrophes, as long as such a configuration of learning exists, the emergence of sciences is necessary (and will occur sooner or later).

The more interesting problem for me is not the Antiquity but Islam. There was a period where scientific research flourished in the Arab countries, but it appears to have disappeared after some time. There is a lack of clarity (as far as I am concerned) regarding how to go about studying the Islamic culture. Is the Moghul India a part of the Islamic culture? Should we speak of an Arab culture or Middle Eastern culture and not of an Islamic one? What historical accidents can prevent the emergence of what is inherent in a configuration of learning? And so on. Ceteris paribus, sciences will emerge out of a configuration of learning generated by religion. Which cetera have to be paria in this case? I do not know.

I wish I had the time to study Islam and its development.

2. A configuration of learning also has the dynamic to reproduce itself. That is to say, besides being fed by the dynamic of religion (that enables sciences to emerge if they do not exist), the configuration of learning reproduces itself as well. However, the conditions under which knowledge production feeds itself are not (always) coextensive with the conditions under which such knowledge production is possible. What happens when the reproductive dynamic of the configuration of learning and of religion are not synchronized? What does it mean to speak of ‘synchronization’ in this case? How can we decide about that? When could we say that they are out of step with each other? Again, I do not even know how to go about tackling these questions.

3. The problems in each of these cases, and in any number of other cases, are the same. I cannot appeal to accumulated knowledge. There are no received concepts and theories (in other domains) that can help me. I am forced to fashion new concepts and hypotheses in order to carry my research forward. There are billions of questions that require answering; the hypothesis I have is too elementary even to begin tackling them. All I can do is soldier on, and make do with what I have.

4. The origin of natural sciences is one of those billions of questions. All I have is a vague idea of the direction in which research should proceed. But doing research on this issue is a huge job: a task for generations (as history has shown) and not solvable by any one individual without the presence of appropriate concepts and theories from other domains. We do not have them today.

5. It is this situation, among others, that makes me believe that the so-called social sciences today are not sciences, whatever else they might be. If anything, they prevent the emergence of knowledge and insight into human beings, their cultures and societies. If you add the fads of contemporary intellectuals to this dismal state of knowledge, the situation is absolutely disastrous. It is almost as though every Tom, Dick and Harry is an ‘expert’ on everything about human beings. One does not know what religion is, but there are any number of theories from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology that provide ‘evolutionary’ answers to the origin of religion; one has not investigated ethics in different cultures, but biological and philosophical theories about their universality abound. We do not know what a ‘person’ is, but why should that prevent Developmental psychology from analyzing’ the development of personality? One could go on and on, but I trust the point is made. Add the fancy jargon of post-modernism, post-colonialism and such like to this situation, why, everyone knows what Hinduism is, caste is, Indian ethics is … Only fools think that scientific research is required to provide knowledge.