Sunday, November 20, 2005

The sea into which all rivers flow

I have mentioned here before Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. It is a demanding book, but richly rewarding, and of exceptional relevance to our time.

Nanda is a champion of the universality of modern science as a remedy for cultural fragmentation, and especially as a counterpoint to local truth systems that presume access to the mind of God.

She disputes, for example, the Indian nationalist claim to modernity based on the Vedic "science" of Hindu holy books. Traditional Hindu practices such as astrology, vastu shastra (building structures in alignment with the cosmic "life-force"), Ayurveda (traditional Hindu medicine), transcendental meditation, faith healing, telepathy, and other miracles merely pretend to the mantle of science, says Nanda. In fact, they have nothing in common with science as practiced -- first in the West, then globally -- since the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Vedic science, she asserts, is a phony face on age old superstitions.

If all of this sounds familiar, well, that's Nanda's broader point. Think Western postmodernism, with its emphasis on the relativism of truth systems. Think intelligent design, alternate medicine, and other pseudoscientific enthusiasms so widely embraced in the West.

When intellectuals East or West exalt local truth systems over the universality of science, says Nanda, there is nothing left to prevent society's slide into tribalism, religious sectarianism, and nationalist passion. A glance around the world today, with its plethora of religious and ethnic hatreds, suggests that an empirical, secular way of knowing that makes no reference to the gods or to accidents of birth is a gift beyond price. It is a gift that is everywhere under assault.

What looks like tolerant, nonjudgmental "permission to be different" on behalf of Western postmodern intellectuals, says Nanda, is in fact an act of condescension toward non-Western cultures: "It denies them the capacity and the need for a reasoned modification of inherited cosmologies in the light of better evidence made available by the methods of modern science." The postmodern injunction to prefer cultural authenticity over scientific objectivity plays into the hands of religious and cultural nationalists who sow the seeds of violent reaction. Christian "dominionism" in the United States, Hindu nationalism in India, and Islamic fundamentalism march hand in hand to the same backward-facing piper.

Nanda's book is particularly valuable for us in America precisely because it begins with the critique of a foreign culture. As she analyzes the shortcomings of a Hindu nationalism based on archaic cosmology and religious superstitions, we say, "Yeah, right on, Nanda." Then we stop and think for a moment and recognize ourselves.

It is important also to hear an Indian philosopher speak so forcefully in favor of Western Enlightenment values. Nanda evokes an image of the historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham: Modern natural science is the sea into which all the rivers of local sciences flow. She writes: "While all medieval, pre-Galilean sciences, whether from Europe, Asia, or Africa, explained nature through anthropomorphic metaphors peculiar to their time and place, modern science alone managed to break free from time and place."

Modern science has become the lingua franca for natural philosophers and scientists around the world. For Nanda, that's all for the better. Any way of knowing that secularizes and disenchants nature works on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere, she argues, by breaking the hold of those whose claim to dominance presumes divine favor.

In all of this, Nanda is almost certainly correct. But in a science-based society what becomes of morality, which has traditionally been based on the precepts of holy books? What becomes of a sense of the sacred, which has traditionally been associated with the supernatural? Nanda addresses these questions too.

Human values and purposes need not, any longer, be dictated by church, state, custom or tradition, she says. Rather, as John Dewey suggested, the success of modern science shows that human beings are capable of creating their own regulative standards by subjecting social experience to a collective, democratically conducted inquiry. One might argue that this accounts for the success of the American national experiment, which is based on the Enlightenment ideal of equal rights and justice for all.

In Buddhist naturalistic philosophy Nanda finds a world view with a sense of the sacred that does not offend reason, and which provides a foundation for a sustainable relationship between humans and the planet which is our home. There is an equivalent tradition in the West, although it is very much a minority view. It has been a theme of this website that reliable empirical knowledge of the world can deepen our sense of the sacred and reinforce ecological consciousness.

A secular, science-based idea of what it means to be human "puts a high premium on reducing all avoidable suffering and on affirming the ordinary life of here-and-now," writes Nanda. Enough then, please, of the self-righteous nationalism and religious triumphalism that leads to violence, oppression, and intolerance.

I might add, treat with suspicion politicians who feel it necessary for political purposes to wear national flag pins in their lapels and invoke as often as possible the name of God. This is not true patriotism or true religion; it is a surrender to the backward-looking forces of post-scientific reaction.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.