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History And Culture

Science, Modernity and Life

Ravi Sinha

Science and modernity are widely considered among the most celebrated features of contemporary human civilization. Increasingly they are taken as the defining elements that distinguish modern times from the times gone by. At such a sweeping level, there can be many other ways to characterize the contemporary. One can, for example, refer to capitalism, market, globalization, democracy or nation-states. One can also include various critiques of capitalism and the widespread resistance to its hegemonic and imperialistic avatars among the characteristic features of present times. Such characterizations, however, belong to a layer of historical reality that is more systemic than civilizational. Science and modernity, especially when taken as a correlated pair, characterize present times at a deeper level. They have, so to speak, seeped into the subterranean layers of contemporary historical reality.

On the face of it, such an assertion would appear to be far removed from the actual state of affairs in the real world. It would be rare, for example, to find a person whose beliefs and practices are fully consistent with established precepts of science. Such a search would be a fruitless endeavour, more or less, in any society on the planet. A similar anomaly is apparent in the case of modernity too. One can safely say that an overwhelming majority of humans in the contemporary world does not live by the canons or conventions of modernity. While few may be completely untouched by the laws and institutions of a modern polity or by the processes and pressures of a modern economy, most live by traditions and practices that do not sit well with basic attributes of modernity.

It can, perhaps, be argued that rather than being an anomaly it is more a matter of the time lag that necessarily exists between sowing the seeds of a culture and their actual flowering into a civilization. One can perhaps claim that, with passage of time, both science and modernity are destined to get entrenched in diverse cultures and emerge as common and universal elements of all future civilizations. While such an argument cannot be refuted easily or decisively, it cannot be accepted as a self-evident truth either. The long course of history since the twin emergence of science and modernity in the middle of the last millennium has gone through such disturbing episodes that one would be justified to have serious doubts about any such claim.

One can take the example of religious sectarianism that appears too often in its fundamentalist and murderous forms. The onward march of science and modernity was supposed to have progressively undermined the basis of religion and other forms of unreason, which would have, eventually, put an end to the long history of religious wars, riots and genocides. It would be hard to claim that history has progressed along such expected lines during recent centuries. The infamous genocides and carnages, such as those of Bosnia, Rwanda or Gujarat, are not merely the exceptions that spoil an otherwise pretty picture. They are the far end of the same spectrum that spans myriad forms of bigotry and superstition ailing even the most modern among societies. Combined with racism, patriarchy, misogyny, caste-ism and other longstanding ailments of similar kinds, these forms seem to make the world a dark place impervious to the values of reason, justice, equality and freedom. Can one really claim that humanity now has come under the sway of science and modernity?

The picture is so murky that, even for the most erudite scholars, it is hard to decide whether it is the best of times or it is the worst of times. It may be interesting to recall that two competing theses became the talk of the intellectual town at around the same time and were discussed on the high tables of global policy makers. In the heady days of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, one thesis announced "the end of history" and proclaimed the final victory for western liberal democracy. In response came the other famous thesis that announced the onset of a new era of "clash of civilizations". The former rejoiced at humanity's final arrival at the plateau of eternal bliss that had long been promised by reason and modernity as embodied in the liberal democratic version of capitalism. The last hurdle on this pre-ordained path that came unexpectedly in the form of "communism" had been removed. The latter, on the other hand, had ominous forebodings of far more dangerous times heralded by the conclusion of the clash of systems. Irreconcilable civilizations about which it had been said long ago—Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet—were now to meet on the global battlefield of history.

If the success of science and modernity in reshaping human civilization along the promised lines is suspect in many eyes, it appears equally dubious in the realm of the parallel claim of creating a new human being—one who is liberated from the clutches of custom and superstition and equipped with unclouded reason and robust moral autonomy. If it is difficult to gain reliable knowledge of how the world works, it is even more difficult to assume the captaincy of one's own soul. Fathoming the depths of the human psyche has turned out far more challenging than conquering the expansive civilizational frontiers.

For those who would like to subvert the reputation of science and add grist to the irrationalist mill, there is nothing more sensational than the personal beliefs and practices of appropriately chosen scientists. A reasonably famous scientist, who may complain about public disinterest in his scientific achievements, can be certain of making it to the front page if he is caught in the act of praying or reading the daily horoscope. Newspapers, which seldom bother to inform the reader about the scientific content of the Indian space programme, do not fail to give prime space to reports about the space scientists making a visit to the Tirupathi temple prior to every launch "to have a "darshan" of Lord Balaji seeking his blessing by placing a replica of the rocket to be launched. If science cannot rid even the scientists of superstitions, what hope is there for it to give rise to a civilization steeped in science, reason and modernity?

Skepticism about the claims of science and modernity and about the desirability of their aspirations is not confined to the popular media. There has been a long philosophical-intellectual tradition of reason-bashing that flexes its scholarly muscles in casting doubts on the foundations, methods and competencies of science. Recent decades have witnessed remarkable academic popularity of intellectual attacks on the ideals and practices of both science and modernity. Such arguments and studies in the fields of philosophy, sociology, cultural theory and 'science studies', which can often be identified by the prefix post—as in the postmodern, post-structural, or the postcolonial, invariably subscribe, whether unabashedly or with qualifications, to the cultural relativist and social constructivist attitudes and standpoints.

Cultural Relativism generally holds that knowledge and values are generated within specific cultures or civilizations each one of which has its own cognitive-epistemological-normative universe. Being culture-specific, the cognitive goals and strategies or the moral values cannot be compared or judged across the cultural-civilizational boundaries. Social constructivism asserts that all knowledge is socially constructed in which natural world has little role to play. In this scheme of unpacking what science is and what it does, social facts such as interests, values or prejudices are taken as primary and fundamental, whereas natural facts such as atoms, gravity or galaxies are secondary and derivative. Together, cultural relativism and social constructivism deny the possibility of trans-cultural knowledge of mind-independent and language-independent reality. In their strong versions they even deny the existence of such a reality. In any case, this kind of thinking strives to undermine all benchmarks of truth, objectivity and method created by science and adopted, even if partially and selectively, by modernity.

In the case of science such critiques and subversive strategies proceed along multiple lines. For example, history is summoned to expose the scandal associated with the birth of science. Unlike Athena who leapt out fully formed from the head of Zeus, science was an illegitimate child of religion which came through a very unclean birth soiled with magic, alchemy, astrology, sophistry, illogic, inconsistency, vested interests and myriad other forms of unreason. Along another line, the methodological promiscuity of scientists is cited as a proof that science can have no claim to a consistent and foolproof method capable of guiding it to correct conclusions and reliable knowledge. Yet another line of attack comes from sociological studies of scientists and their institutions. Such studies purportedly show that the primary reason for the emergence and existence of science is its usefulness in maintaining systems of hierarchy, power, exploitation and vested interests. At another front, evidence collected by anthropological-historical researches is marshaled to prove that all different cultures and civilizations have had their own indigenous sciences. Implicitly or explicitly as the case may be, this implies that western science, which was nothing but a product of European provinciality, could impose itself on rest of the world as universal modern science through the brute force of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.

Modernity too has faced increasingly hostile reception in the academic-intellectual circles during recent decades. In fact, when compared with science, modernity can be attacked far more easily. Science in its abstract and general form is modeled on the natural sciences. The ultimate court for trial of science is Nature itself. The charges against it are likely to fall flat if its assumptions, methods and conclusions are supported by evidence gathered from the natural world. That is why a key strategy of the prosecution has been to question the jurisdiction or impartiality of the court itself. If there is nothing like Nature with its mind-independent laws and if, instead, what is thought of as objective reality is nothing more than a social-cognitive construction, science, then, loses its most secure foundation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the most convincing defense of science comes from calling upon Nature as an authority external to the society. Modernity, on the other hand, does not have an external support about which it can be said that it is unsullied, more or less, by social interests and historical contingencies. Despite the fact that it has borrowed certain elements from science, modernity is primarily a way of life. It is the philosophical-social-institutional infrastructure of the modern world. It is not surprising that it is deeply implicated in society and history and cannot easily extricate itself from all that has happened to humanity under its watch.

Most common critiques of modernity dwell on its being congenitally entangled with capitalism and colonialism. This entanglement has continued with the postcolonial avatars of western imperialism. An essential feature of such critiques is the viewpoint that a disembodied modernity is nothing but a figment of intellectual imagination. Its only existing form is that of capitalist modernity shaped in accordance with the logic and interests of capitalism and complicit in all the historic crimes of colonialism and imperialism. Postcolonial critiques form a part of this larger category. Invariably they consider modernity to be a pliant handmaiden of capitalism, fully complicit in the ideological justifications of colonialism and racism and utterly contemptuous towards non-western cultures. All such critiques ascribe unlimited powers to capitalism in shaping modernity to exactly suit its purpose and bestow universality on every particularity of a given embodied form of modernity.

In the real world, however, advancement of science and expansion of modernity have progressed unabated. Neither the plebeian resistance nor the cultivated critique has had much success in undermining the increasingly entrenched hegemony of science in the cognitive sphere or in arresting the spread of modernity as a world view and as a way of life.

In the case of science, all relativist arguments deployed in exposing its inconsistencies and inadequacies fail to take notice of one simple thing—science works very well in the domain it rigorously defines for itself and claims as its own. Furthermore, it keeps on improving itself and goes on expanding this domain. In this it does not face any real competition. This glaring oversight of the postmodern skeptics and relativists was underscored rather bluntly by Richard Dawkins who is supposed to have said, "Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I will show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. He could have added that so far there are no civilization-specific ways of flying—no flying chariot or Pushpak Viman has ever been sited. One could perhaps also add that never since the days of the scholastics, who used to argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, have so much scholarship and erudition been pressed into the service of shear irrelevancies.

Similar disregard for facts is evident in most critiques of modernity and especially in their postmodern varieties, although it must be acknowledged that modernity has had a far rougher ride in the real world when compared with science. It is a fact, nevertheless, that systems with their economies and polities configured in accordance with ideals and values of modernity, even if only of the capitalist kind, have spread to the far corners of the world. Postcolonial societies, despite the varying degrees of hesitation and resistance they might harbour, have opened their doors to modernity. More importantly, this has happened in the period of decolonization when the newly independent countries have strived to rid themselves of the colonial imprint. Spread of modernity to these countries cannot be attributed exclusively to the strategies of appending the East to the empires of the West, although the latter may continue to nurse such desires and maneuver accordingly. In the western societies, on the other hand, a degree of fatigue in relation to modernity may be noticed in certain sections and resistance to its capitalist version may become intense from time to time. However, even in these cases, there is no serious challenge. No alternative to modernity as a way of life is visible on the horizons of the real society, except perhaps in the theoretical exertions inside the otherworldly precincts of the academe.

A robust understanding of science and modernity and of their historical as well as conceptual inter-linkages can be gained only by looking at them in relation to the real world. Like everything else in the real world, the situation here too is never clear-cut. Science has not taken all aspects of human life under its fold and it never will, but its supremacy in the sphere of knowledge and in dealing with Nature is undisputed. Cognitive values of the modern era increasingly conform to the scientific values and, despite the valid and necessary criticisms of positivism, many of the methods of dealing with social, systemic, psychological and cultural aspects of life continue to draw inspiration from the scientific method.

Science and the sum total of cognitive values, however, are not enough to constitute modernity. The latter encompasses a set of moral values and their cultural manifestations. Science is not enough to constitute a way of life, whereas modernity has definite prescriptions and recommendations in this regard. Modernity, therefore, is articulated much more directly and intricately into the progression of history. Science cannot dictate or fashion all elements of modernity. The latter has its origins in a far larger domain of social life and human history. On the other hand, with its closer proximity to social life and historical reality, modernity is in a better position to link science with society. Indeed it has played the role of a conveyer-belt in transmitting the influence of science to the social world.

Superstition is no cause for glory in any case, let alone in the case of the scientist. But, perhaps, one can nonetheless heave a sigh of relief that reason and science, by their own make-up, do not and cannot take over life in its entirety.

Life is prior to science and modernity. For most of the hundred or two hundred millennia of their existence, humans have lived without either of them. Obviously, science and modernity are nothing like preconditions of human life.

Life is not only prior. It is also larger. It far outstrips the domains of science and modernity. The latter are specific products of the former. Even in this modern age there are large domains of life that fall outside the purviews of both science and modernity.

And yet, science and modernity have come to form the core of human civilization. Their emergence, perhaps, is the most significant development in human history after the separation of humanity from the animal kingdom.
Actually, emergence of science and modernity is intimately connected with the emergence of humanity out of the animal kingdom. Reason and human agency are the seeds from which science and modernity are bound to sprout sooner or later. The same seeds are also the drivers of humanity's separation from the animal kingdom.

The flowering of science and modernity, however, has taken time. It had to wait till the onset of the modern era. Their mutual interaction played a decisive role in their simultaneous flowering. Science provided intellectual foundations as well as practical tools for modernity to overcome pre-modern systems and ideas. In turn, modernity helped science gain wider cultural acceptance and intellectual authority.

No one can argue that the modern times have been an era of unadulterated bliss. On the contrary, it has been an era of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and wars—an era driven by exploitation and domination and suffused with inequality, oppression and injustice. It is a historical fact that modernity has been entangled with capitalism from birth. This makes it all the more necessary to disentangle them. One should not throw the baby with the bathwater.

Science is a human product but the final arbiter for its claims and methods is Nature. It is historical but its deeds are judged in a court that is trans-historical. The sociological studies of scientists, who are immersed in the system through their interests and institutions, can be useful for many other purposes, but not for uncovering the basic nature of science.

Modernity too is historical, and much more so than science. In this case a trans-historical court of judgment is not available. Modernity must be judged in the court of history. It must, however, be differentiated from the system. It cannot be convicted for the crimes of the system it lives under. There can be a good modern system and there can be a bad one. The former realizes the potentials of modernity better than the latter. A bad modern system must be replaced by a good modern system. Ailments of capitalism and its tyrannies do not originate in science and modernity. They originate in the logic of capital. This is what needs to be replaced.

Science and modernity have cleared large patches of ground—both natural and social-cultural—for humans to walk free. They have also enabled humans to claim and exercise this freedom. This is much more than the pre-moderns could have ever imagined. But humans often decide to wear chains on their feet when walking the ground cleared for their freedom. They create systems of unfreedom that enchain them; they turn science and modernity into instruments of capital and empire. Of course, it is not the doing of all humanity. A large part of it is forced into it. But, looking at it from another vantage point and in the final analysis, history is the making of entire humanity. Science and modernity are historical and in this sense products of humanity. If their full potential for enlarging human freedom is not realized, the responsibility must lie with humanity. It cannot be put at the doors of science and modernity.

Just as the proverbial scientist-believer who creates science but chooses to wrap himself in faith and superstition, humanity has created, through science and modernity, conditions for freedom, but chooses to walk in chains. But, then, humans are known as much for their follies as for their triumphs. And, often, they make history and notch further triumphs by fighting their own creations and overcoming their own follies.
(abridged)

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 43, May 4 -10, 2014