Saturday, October 25, 2014

Non-positive, non-reductionist non-science is science!

The year 2000 started out quite badly for me, losing my father in February. Then came my wedding in July, a blissful moment. Then came another devastation, my mother dying in December of that year. So you would understand the emotional roller coaster I was riding on in that year. But even as I was shrieking on the down slides (not with excitement, of course) I never asked the questions, “Why did my father and mother die?” and “Why did I get married to this wonderful lady?” I knew now I will never get the answers outside of myself.
I endorse “positive reductionist science” and I knew that I will never get the final answer to my “why” questions. My endorsement – note that I am not using the word “belief” as I do not know whether it is appropriate at all to use that word here – of the kind of science B M Hegde takes severe exception to in his article in the Open Page space of The Hindu of October 26, 2014 (“Unlearning to learn: a physician’s thoughts”) comes not out of any learning or unlearning in the evolution of my thoughts. It is, in this restricted context, sui generis.
Now I give below an image of the “offending” article (yes, it is currently fashionable to be “offended’ by the thoughts of others; but, I will not disrupt any public activities!)

In response to the same I posted a comment online and I give that too below (italics in in quotes):
I am not a Christian, in the interest of full disclosure. In the quote from the Bible Jesus is NOT talking about earthly riches but knowing the mysteries of Heaven. The writer has done a hatchet job. Does he imply that non-positive non-reductionist non-science will provide answers to the "why" question? He is still searching through various avenues but appears not to know when to quit. Reductionist science is quite clear - never. It will prod on. The writer seems to endorse eugenics when he quotes Alexis Carrel. Coming from a medical doctor, this is atrocious. Thanks doctor for letting us know what we should "unlearn"!
There is a lot more that I wanted to say on the article but the space limit online curtailed my response. As this is my space, I give free vent to my thoughts.
The writer has a penchant for quoting Nobel Laureates, but never setting down the contexts of these quotes. Assuming that Christ would have got a Nobel Prize for peace had the award existed in his times, I can substantiate my charge against the writer.
Hegde quotes the Bible to assert that the medical profession uses “crisis” like the currently raging (jumping across the Atlantic pond) Ebola virus: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given (Matthew 13:12).” But Jesus tells this to his disciples in response to queries about why he speaks in parables immediately after referring to, in Matthew 13:11, what will be given: a look into the “…mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” This is far from the riches of the medical profession.
It is with this non-contextualizing pinch of salt I shall take Hegde’s quotes. Let me comment on another quote without even taking this caveat. He quotes Charles Sherrington: “Positive sciences cannot answer the question ‘why’.”  This is no revelation. Every scientist worth her salt labors under this constraint. Her effort is to go ever closer to the ultimate answer to the ultimate ‘why’ question knowing full well that she will never be able to reach her destination. Science is always provisional.
But Sherrington does not suggest – from the quote offered by the writer – we should take recourse to “non-positive no-reductionist non-science” to get this ultimate answer. But our writer feels no compunction and he boldly takes this leap and tries to find the answer in “religion, theology, psychology, spirituality, alternative medical systems, philosophy, Sanatana Dharma’s Karma Theory, sociology, and even teleology.” While admitting that so far his efforts along these avenues have not yielded results, he does not tell when he would stop such inquiries.
Assume he will never stop. Then, that undermines his credibility because it is akin to science which also never stops! His methods are then science, the very thing he takes cudgels against.
Of course, the above is not logically complete. There can be avenues that may never stop but are not science. But, all such avenues, from experience, end up incomplete, either by giving incomplete answers (like the Karma Theory) or muzzling the question itself by competitive sophistry (Advaita and Dvaita, for example). Hedge has to choose between two poisons – accept that what he is trying out are avenues of science which he holds in contempt or that they will never lead to the final solution. This he does not acknowledge and carries on with his intellectually lazy exercise.
He says that while the rich died under medical care the “poor survived, disease notwithstanding.” He refuses to acknowledge that poor survived because they were prolific breeders. Now that leads to me this last observation. He quotes Alexis carrel approvingly on eugenics, “it makes sense”. Coming from a doctor this is crying shame.
Both my father and mother died under medical care. But I have never blamed the medical profession for their deaths; it was I, indeed my mother who chose her treatment. I do not know “why” my parents died, the ultimate cause. The proximate cause is cancer for my mother and heart attack for my father. But that is not unsatisfactory, to me. To play Hegde’s game, Richard Feynman, another Nobel laureate said that he can live (implied: also die) without knowing.
Raghuram Ekambaram


Aditi said...

Am not qualified to comment on this Raghu, I am not familiar with the writings quoted. I hope I get the drift of the blog though somewhat. The question 'why' is an eternal quest in science and needs to be pursued within the realm of science by a scientist. The moment a scientist allows herself to dither towards non-science for an answer to 'why', she deviates from being a scientist.

mandakolathur said...

Sorry Aditi, it has been a long time since I visited my blog space. Hence the delayed response. You are so absolutely right, and that coming from a supposedly non-scientist is a shame on all those scientists who take the easy way out. Thank you so much.