Monday, July 27, 2009

Can a true rational person compartmentalize inquisitiveness and rational thinking?

The basic qualities of a scientist or any truly educated person are rational thinking and inquisitiveness. I think a true scientific mind can never restrict his/her abilities limited only to his/her area of work but will apply to each and every aspect of life. Sometimes it may create problems for the person to live a “normal” life, mainly in a conservative society in countries like India. It can also become a bit painful experience when s/he start applying these qualities to ask questions and re-visit traditions, religion and religious beliefs that we imbibe since our childhood; from our parents, relatives and society. I know it is always a tricky issue to mix science with religion and tradition. I also should make it clear that my intention is not to hurt any religious sentiment here.

Let me give an example. In India majority are Hindus and so are majority of Indian “scientists”. Many of us believe that beef eating is not allowed in Hinduism, which is clearly not true, as per historians and social scientists. Many of Hindu “scientists” religiously follow that so-called religious custom and never eat beef for “religious” reason. There are many such rituals that we follow in the name of tradition and religion. This attitude gave rise to a very conservative and close society even among so-called educated people, as I think. It has a bigger impact on society when an established “scientist” follows such rituals. It strengthens many superstitions in the name of religion/tradition among common Indian people, who are not that much literate or well informed. I think I should make it clear that respect to one’s heritage and acknowledgement of one’s past is a different issue as compared to accepting and encouraging distorted version of religion and negative aspects of tradition. 

We need to keep in mind that single most important reason of killing people is religion since pre-historic time and India has more than fair share in that number. Mass murder, brutal torture of weaker sections of our society (e.g against women) in the name of religion/tradition is still a burning issue in Indian society which mainly originates from ill-informed notion about “religion” and lack of transparent, rational thinking.

I am not advocating that all scientists or truly educated people to start a mass movement to eradicate religious superstitions and social prejudices leaving less time for their main profession. I am wondering how hard it will be for us to set examples to others (mainly to our students and juniors) by our own deeds in personal lives. I do not think it will take any extra time away from our research or teaching. I have seen many Indian “scientists” wearing rings with gem stones to rectify some "rogue" star/planets to change their misfortunes. Whatever such scientist/teachers teach in a class or in his/her lab, is not going to make his/her students more rational and “educated” in real sense.

What we do has more profound impact on our students and juniors than what we actually preach in classes. As a teacher our duty is not only to train some techniques and transfer information in the name of “education” and “professionalism”, but also to train them, to encourage them to become a better human being, to gather the courage and wisdom not only to remain personally honest but to oppose corruption in an effective way. I am not asking my students or juniors or friends to become a martyr by opposing crimes and corruption of powerful people in a country like India but simply asking them to think of a better way to do it without sacrificing too much. The best and most effective way we can do, as I think, is by setting standard for ourselves.

My questions are:
1. Does a truly educated person have the social responsibility to behave a bit more responsibly with more open, logical attitude outside of his/her area of work?
2. If the answer to my previous question is yes; then, can we afford to continue compartmentalizing inquisitiveness and rational thinking?
3. Lastly, is it at all possible to become rational in some issues but not in many others?

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