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Distortion of history worries Amartya

Special Correspondent

"Scepticism is exactly what we have to generate before any newer understanding"


  • Scientific objectivity undermined by sectarian traditionalists
  • Some general mistrust of very idea of social science prevails
  • Starvation is associated with decline in economic means

    — PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE

    THOUGHT-PROVOKING: Nobel laureate Amartya Sen at a lecture on Science, Argument and Scepticism organised by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai on Saturday.

    MUMBAI: Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and Lamont University Professor of Economics and Philosophy, has expressed doubts and unhappiness about the way history and culture are invoked in ongoing political debates in India today.

    Prof. Sen was delivering a public lecture on Saturday on "Science, argument and scepticism" at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

    Raw deal

    "My dissatisfaction related on the one side, to the distortion of history and the undermining of scientific objectivity by sectarian traditionalists (including the Hindutva movement) and on the other, to the rootlessness and historical innocence of the obdurate modernist," he said. The tradition of science and mathematics tends to receive a fairly raw deal from both sides of the divide between sectarian traditionalism and rootless modernism, according to Prof. Sen.

    He said he was dismayed by the fact that the intellectual links between the strong heritage of scepticism and heterodoxy, on one side, and scientific pursuits and creativity on the other hand, received so little attention.

    Earlier, explaining the reasons for choosing this topic for a lecture, he said that while the TIFR was founded in response to a "capacious vision of science and society," that vision included the pursuit of scientific excellence but combined it with a clear understanding of the role of science in society as well as the role of society in science. "Our unwillingness to remain satisfied with ongoing understanding and knowledge can be very important for the motivation behind the development of science. Arguments and scepticism are central to the two-way relationship between science and society," he said. Another reason for the topic, he said, was his book of essays called The Argumentative Indian, which was prompted by a general curiosity about the historical and intellectual background of India, among other motivations.

    "We cannot live without the past even though we cannot live within it either. Second, when history is distorted for one purpose or another, it requires correction. Veracity was important for history as it is for science," he pointed out. "We do not have to be imprisoned in history to take it seriously," he remarked.

    Examining these issues in his lecture, Prof. Sen said cultivation of doubts and the sharpening of questions lie at the root of most scientific inquiries. He pointed out that India had had a truly exceptional heritage of being doubtful and sceptical. But he regretted that this legacy had tended to be fairly comprehensively neglected both by traditionalists who emphasise faith (particularly religious faith) rather than doubt, and by modernists who have tended to attribute the origin of Indian scepticism to Western, particularly British influence.

    Using the example of the Vedas, he said what was missed out was the way the 3500-year-old Rig Veda raised central doubts about religious accounts of the world, for example that of creation. These foundational doubts about the creative power and even omniscience of any god like figure would recur in Indian critical debates again and again. In fact, Sanskrit had a larger volume of agnostic or atheistic writings than in any other classical language, he said. Doubts sometimes take the form of agnosticism and sometimes that of atheism. Buddhism, which originated here and which was its principal religion for thousands of years, "is the only world religion in which the morality of behaviour did not invoke God in any way."

    He referred to the "Lokayata" philosophy of sceptical materialism, which flourished from the first millennium BC, and Carvaka's arguments against Krishna's advice in the Mahabharata to illustrate how atheism and materialism continued to attract adherents and advocates over many centuries. An understanding of Indian heterodoxy was particularly important for appreciating its range in the country's intellectual background and diverse history.

    Moving to the constructive role of science in the development of scepticism in society, Prof. Sen said economic problems were central to the maladies of famine and chronic hunger, relentless poverty and persistent inequality, among other issues. While the dismal nature of economics was certainly not in dispute, what about its claim to science, he asked. No economist could be unaware of the scepticism that was widely shared about the economist's ability to carry out objective investigations and to make reliable predictions. "There is even some general mistrust of the very idea of social science." He said that, "We must make room for the inherent ambiguities of many economic and social concepts such as poverty, inequality, class or community."

    In his examination of the causes of famine, he found that many of the major famines had in fact occurred without any reduction at all of food availability per head. Some famines had occurred in years of peak food availability (for example, the Bangladesh famine of 1974). He also found that starvation in famines was typically associated with the selective decline in the economic means and entitlements of particular occupation groups related to factors such as fall in real wages. But despite these findings many people remained convinced that it had to be a matter of food supply after all. "Scepticism is exactly what we have to generate before any kind of a newer understanding can take root."

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