Monday, 28 November 2011

Preface to "Science versus Miracles"

Pushpa M Bhargava

The following is the Preface written by Dr PM Bhargava to the book "Science versus Miracles" of Premanand. We reproduce it as part of our effort to upload the entire book online in html format. We have already uploaded a few chapters of the book. The remaining chapters will be uploaded in due course.

Man has been on our 4.5 billion year-old planet and some 12-15 billion year old universe for less than 2 million years. Our recorded history is much less than 10.000 years old and our oldest cities such as Jericho in Israel are less than 7,000 years old. Today there are two dominating influences on man: religion and science, the former being much older than the later.

The origins of both religion and science can be traced to the evolution of intelligence in man. Intelligence is just another name for the ability to ask questions. One can therefore surmise that in the remote past, when man came to be endowed with intelligence, he must have asked himself questions - of at least four kinds. First, questions about the non-living material he saw around him, such as water, air, earth and minerals. Secondly, questions about the physical phenomena he witnessed, such as light, heat, sound, thunder and lightning. Thirdly, questions about the extra terrestrial objects and phenomena he observed, such as the periodical rising of the sun, the moon and the stars; the passage of the planets through the various constellations and of course the eclipses. And fourthly, questions about the living things that he saw around him - for example the recurrent phenomena of birth, disease and death. All these phenomena, which now come under the purview of the four basic sciences - chemistry, physics, astronomy and biology - must indeed have intrigued early man. How did he then go about finding the answers?

The method of science had not developed, and the whole logic and logistics that we have today for answering such questions, did not exist at that time. What did the primitive man then do? He used his intelligence to construct self-consistent systems of beliefs such that once you accepted certain premises entirely on faith, and without questioning, answers that were plausible, at least at that time, emerged. It is this kind of effort that perhaps led to the development of religion both pagan and codified - the codified religions including Hinduism. Buddhism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However as the total fund of human knowledge increased, a time came when man began to question the basic premises of religion. Out of this questioning, perhaps, crystallized what we today know, formally, as the method of science.

It soon became apparent that the scientific method could not only be used as a tool, which would satisfy human curiosity much more than religion had done so far, but it also opened up new areas for investigation that had so far been hidden or den prohibited- The phenomenon snow-balled from the thirteenth century onwards, and we had Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Rene Descartes Newton, amongst others, to give new dimensions to the method of science - to the newly developed art of questioning. The answers that emerged did not demand acceptance on the basis of faith alone; moreover they were testable and verifiable and did not depend on the whims and fancies - or the likes and dislikes - of an individual or a group of individuals. Soon, science became a competitor to religion and' often, came into direct conflict with it We had in the 16th and 17th centuries, the conflict between Copernicus and Galileo on one side and the Church on the other. More recently, in the last centuries the Church waged another major battle - this time against the Darwinian theory of evolution, which was so ably extended by Thomas Huxley to the evolution of man.

As science opened up new vistas, religion soon became a hindrance to its progress, and led to the persecution of scientists. Copernicus had to recant because he said that it was not the sun that goes round the earth, but the earth that goes round the sun. Galileo, a follower of Copernicus, died in prison on account of holding on to Copernican beliefs. And, before Galileo, Bruno was burnt at the stake for reasoned dissent. As recently as a hundred years ago, Darwin and Huxley were laughed at by an uneasy Church for saying that man has evolved from 'lower' creatures, and not put on the earth as an act of creation. However, there was a redeeming feature for science too. Whenever a conflict arose between science and religion, the explanation provided by science through the use of the method of science, was always found to be more appealing to reason. Science, therefore, grew up, so to say, as a competitor to religion, and the battle still continues on many fronts. Mr. Premanand's book is about one such battle: between science and miracles that are an integral part of religion.

There has been no god or prophet with whom miracles have not been associated - be it Christ or Mohammed - or Krishna or Rama - or even gods such as Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu or India. (Goddesses seem somehow, even in our folklore. less prone than gods to performing miracles!) In fact, the ability to perform miracles has often been considered as an essential proof of divinity.

Today, science and technology have come to be interwoven irrevocably into the very fabric of our existence. Further, they have represented and symbolized the creative urge in all of us which is built in our genes and has given our species an extremely valuable advantage that has helped us survive against so many odds during evolution and the competition between species, a la Darwin. It is the incursion of science into our even-day life and the consequent development of scientific temper to a lesser of greater extent in different societies, that has helped in the disappearance of the colonial rule, in the overall democratization of the world polity, and in the recognition of individual human rights, and the value of peace and integrated development in all parts of the world. Therefore, there is no getting away from science and technology. Mankind today is thus an inheritor of two trends of thoughts: one based on religion which in turn is based on revelation and unquestioned or unqualified acceptance of authority, and the other based on science which is on the right to question and the obligation to form one's opinion on the basis of evidence. I have argued elsewhere (Society and Science, 1981, 4(2), 42-50) that science and religion are incompatible and stand in contradiction to each other. (In using the term religion here I refer to religious dogmas which is what distinguishes one religion from another, and not the basic value system which is common to all religions and which finds substantiation in modern science.) Miracles constitute an important part of the dogma of every religion and a miracle is a miracle only if it cannot be explained by science.

Miracles are thus, by definition, a manifestation of the supernatural - something, which is outside the scope of science and of comprehension of the ordinary man. Science on the other hand, by definition, denies the existence of the supernatural.. One often witnesses or hears about events, which, in the opinion of many people, can have only a supernatural explanation, that is, an explanation outside the scope of the method of science. In reality, all such events do have a scientific explanation, often simple and ingenious!

For example, the famous magician Houdini, could come out of locked jails, and could swim ashore safely after he had been tied in a sack, placed in a trunk. The trunk locked and then drop in a river bed. If he had started claiming supernatural powers and set himself up as a godmen in our country, he would probably have acquired an enormous following! Here is one explanation of how he may have done it

It is well-known that some people can develop by training, special physical abilities, like the ability to twitch one's ear at will. Houdini had developed the physical ability of vomiting out the contents of his stomach at will. He swallowed a knife and the key to the lock, just before he was tied up; physical search therefore, never revealed him to be in possession of these objects (they would have, of course been discovered on him - or rather, in him - if some one had decided to use X-rays!). To come out of the jail, he only had to vomit the gadgets out, cut open the rope and then open, from inside, the lock.

There is no doubt that belief in the supernatural (and thus in miracles) as an integral part of one's belief in religious dogma, has been one of the more important impediments to development of our society - not only here but elsewhere at a well, for belief in the supernatural and in miracles has not been just been an Indian prerogative (If we have our Sai Babes the West has their Reverend Moons or Jones or believes in Mahesh Yogi or Acharaya Rajneesh or the Hare Krisna movement.) Prime Minister Nehru was acutely aware of this when he coined the term "Scientific Temper" and said:

"The applications of science are inevitable and unavoidable for all countries and peoples today. But something more than its application is necessary. It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for the truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change our conclusions in the face of new evidence the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems."

A group of leading intellectuals of the country issued a statement "A statement on Scientific Temper", in 1981. The statement said:
"Despite Jawaharlal Nehru's advocacy of Scientific Temper, we are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly." "In such an environment, there is an erosion of belief in the capacity of human faculties to solve national problems through a systematic critique of the existing social situation. There is a cancerous growth of superstition at all levels. Rituals of the most bizarre kind are frequently performed often with official patronage. Obscurantist social customs are followed even by those whose profession is the pursuit of scientific enquiry. Our entire educational system works in an atmosphere of conformity, non-questioning and obedience to authority. Quoting authority of one kind or another substitutes enquiry, questioning and thought."
From what I have said-above it would follow logically that if one could establish that so-called miracles by our godmen and the rest are no miracles but are explicable in terms of laws of science, it would help substantially in eradication of superstition, and thus preparing people to form their opinions, base their decisions, and carry out their actions, within a framework of objectivity, reason and rationality - something in which we have been so acutely deficient as a nation so far.

There has been no crusader-that I know of anywhere in the world against miracles who has been more successful and more eloquent and is more knowledgeable than Mr. Premanand with whom l had the pleasure being acquainted with for many years. They say, to catch a thief, employ a thief! Thus, to make people realize that those who perform miracles are no more then ordinary men, the best person would be someone who can perform these miracles himself or herself and show to the people how it is all done. Mr. Premanand is one such person.

But, then, to how many people he can go himself even with the tremendously increased facilities of travel and communication? Spoken word has much power, it said. He has exercised this power over tens of thousands of people from all over t world. But there are millions of others who can he reached only through written word. I am, therefore, delighted that Premanand has, in his direct style, presented in this book, the recipe of performing 150 miracles, many of which would have intrigued readers some time or the other in his or her life. What a godman can do, you can do too - and possibly better. Where, then, is the need for you to fall at his feet? You, least, would not cheat or tell others that because you can perform these miracles you have godly powers and whatever you say must he accepted entirely on the basis of faith and without questioning. Godmen cannot afford to be so honest.

I have every hope that readers of all ages would enjoy going through this book and come to the conclusion that if a miracle has happened (Remembering that very often a miracle has only been talked about but never happened), there must be a natural explanation for it, and the person who says that he performed a miracle because he has specie powers is only telling a lie.

I congratulate Mr. Premanand for writing this book and for publishing it.


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