doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.245 Published online 24 July 2008

In God we trust

Indian scientists and their religion are seemingly inseparable. Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju contends why.

Gautam R. Desiraju

The results of a recent survey conducted by the Centre for Inquiry in India and Trinity College, Connecticut, on the religious beliefs of Indian scientists, are hardly surprising. The findings state that the majority of us, mostly Hindu of course, believe in the existence of a higher power, while a quarter among the believers call Him God. The study also records the beliefs of Indian scientists in reincarnation and karma, their predilection for seeking Lord Venkateswara´s blessing before an important scientific venture, their attitudes to the caste system and so forth.

Why am I not surprised? For a start, India is deeply religious in its inner ethos. The importance of spirituality to life has been reiterated by our seers and sages over time. To say that religion is a crutch used by poorer civilizations (since wealthy countries have dispensed with religion as superfluous) is to oversimplify and trivialize the matter. India, except during 1800-2000 AD, has never been particularly poor. The economies of India (and China) have always been important to the economy of the world, except during this interregnum. Again, small yet persistent numbers of people from supposedly richer climes have been continuously attracted to Hinduism, seeking a solace from it that eludes them in say, Christianity. Hinduism appears to answer and satisfy the metaphysical needs of affluent societies where the daily necessities of life are no longer an issue.

Further, Indians seem to be uniquely able to synthesize irreconcilable states of being, whether sublime or ridiculous. We tolerate total squalor amidst unimaginable riches, high thinking alongside venal corruption, female infanticide with abject mother worship, cricketers raking in crores in a six week IPL season while most of the country ekes out a living, garbage from clean houses making for filthy neighbourhoods, public impoliteness amidst great personal courtesy. Does it surprise one then that many Indian scientists say they are deeply religious?

Science is about induction from fact while religion is about deduction from dogma. A careless mix of religion with science can be disastrous

It is tempting to attribute this ability to synthesize disparate and even contradictory themes to our religion, which has seamlessly amalgamated features of other religions as it has grown from strength to strength. But science is different in that it is sternly objective. There is this point of departure where science comes into conflict with all religions. Science is about induction from fact while religion is about deduction from dogma. A careless mix of religion with science can be disastrous. The West has experienced this catharsis several times over since Galileo´s encounters with the Inquisition. Hitler’s theories of eugenics and Lysenko´s on the inheritability of acquired characteristics illustrate the conflict between true science and other religions—Nazism and Communism—and the consequences were equally appalling. I think therefore, that the results of the Trinity College-CFI survey ought to be taken seriously. Does the survey indicate in some way that Indians are inherently incapable of doing really good science because of their religious failings?

The scientist follows a conventional and well accepted protocol. He formulates a hypothesis, designs experiments to prove or disprove it, and then analyses and rationalizes his results. The eventual goal is towards a theory which may ultimately lead to new laws. This inductive approach was refined further by Karl Popper´s ideas on falsification. Popper stated that no number of positive outcomes at the level of experimental testing could confirm a scientific theory, but that a single counter-example would reveal that the theory, from which the implication was derived, is false. Therefore disproving a hypothesis is more important than proving it and a theory that forbids is more powerful than one that merely predicts. Science makes no preconditions on the outcome of an experiment but it demands that cause and effect follow each other inexorably until the final truth is revealed. The big prizes in science go to those who dare to be different and do not fear being proved wrong. All this is quite far from organized religion as we know it.

There are, however, situations in modern science where an insightful combination of science with religion and philosophy may bear fruit. A persuasive instance arises in the study of complex systems and emergent properties, where the behaviour of higher level entities may not be predicted or anticipated in a straightforward way from the properties of lower level objects. In such situations, one cannot rule out the role of scientific intuition which goes beyond mere intellect. But such intuition is not illogical. Rather, it is super-logical. It is built on a bedrock of knowledge and organized thought. The importance of intuitive knowledge is stressed in our religion especially in its advaitic formulations and it could well be that Hinduism, at its highest levels, has something unique to offer to the solution of complex scientific problems.

As a chemist, I will quote two spectacular examples from my subject where intuition played a key role in a path breaking discovery. The first is the postulation of a cyclic structure for benzene by August Kekulé who dreamt, they say, in ouroboric fantasy, of a snake swallowing its tail. The second is more recent and about how Francis Crick and James Watson arrived at the double-helix structure for DNA. It is said that their eureka moment came when the crystallographer Jerry Donohue told them that they were using the wrong tautomeric structures for the bases that form the essential core of DNA. They realized at once that this was why they were unable to put together a sensible arrangement of hydrogen bonds in their original model of the superstructure, and the rest is history.

Can science only find truths within the paradigms of Newton, Maxwell, Gibbs and Einstein?

Science claims that it dispassionately tries to seek the truth. But do scientists (or anyone else) understand what is meant by truth? Is truth relative or absolute? Can science only find truths within the paradigms of Newton, Maxwell, Gibbs and Einstein? Are there other frameworks that we do not know of and are therefore beyond comprehension, competing realities that can co-exist with the one given to us by these scientific greats? These are esoteric questions, but closer to ground level, it could be said that a blind belief in religion might lure a scientist away from rigour and discipline, perhaps even without her knowledge. The dread of such laxity is perhaps why many Western practitioners of science shy away from religion to the extent of calling themselves agnostic if not outright atheistic.

At the very root of the matter, religion asks one to suspend rational thinking and substitute it with faith. We Indians are a religious bunch one way or another. While science is about questioning, religion is about acceptance and submission. It is easier to accept things than to question them. Is belief in religion then, a feature in societies that are lazier and more cowardly rather than in those that are poorer? It seems to me that it is this lazy streak in us that makes us accept religion so easily. But ironically, the same laziness will also lead us to think less seriously about religion. So it would appear then that Indian scientists are neither that religious nor that good at what they do.

The author is a professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad and is an India Citation Laureate of Thomson Scientific.