Science, Truth and Gandhi - Divergence and Convergence
Gandhi's notion of truth transcended the narrow conception of truth articulated by science. Gandhi's criticisms of science emanated not only from the blind application of science but also from the methods and practices of scientists to acquire scientific knowledge. He advocated for the incorporation of "theo-centric" humanism within the body of science and technical practices to bring back the much needed humility in man and to put an end to the arrogance prevalent today in the pursuit of knowledge and its application.
"...my experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open; and I do not think that this fact detracts from their spiritual value. ...Far be it from me to claim any degree of perfection for these experiments. I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist, who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them."1 "In experiments I come to conclusions which, if partly right, are sure to be in part wrong; if I correct by other experiments, I advance a step, my old error is in part diminished, but is always left with a tinge of humanity, evidenced by its imperfection."2
The aforesaid statements of Gandhi show the sensitivities of a truth-seeker and the acute awareness of his limitations. The quest for truth has been the long-cherished ideal of human beings in all societies. Since time immemorial scientists, philosophers, thinkers, reformers, sages, rishis and even lay men have made their efforts to arrive at truth. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the most influential and yet most enigmatic personalities of the twentieth century. Various scholars have attempted to understand his views on different subjects. However, his conception of "truth" has been the most elusive concept not only for the scholars but sometimes even for Gandhi himself.3
Gandhi was a great experimental scientist and throughout his life he conducted "experiments" in various fields to arrive at truth. In fact, he lived an 'experimental life' and that was why he named his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi's experiments were oriented to explore various possibilities of the truth. Now the questions arise: What was Gandhi's idea of truth? How was it different from 'scientific truth'? Is it possible to realize truth through experiments? What was the method used by Gandhi to discover truth? Was he following the scientific method or did he devise some alternative method to realize truth? Where do the Gandhian notion of truth and scientific notion of truth converge and diverge? Of course, these are important questions in the contemporary world that is facing the crisis of global warming, pollution, depletion of resources, disparities and social conflicts - all supposed to be caused by blind application of modern science and technology.
In this paper an attempt has been made to compare Gandhi's notion of "truth" with the "scientists' notion of truth" and its realization through their respective methods. It is argued that scientific truth is not contradictory to the Gandhian notion of truth; rather it is complementary and, in fact, it is the need of the hour to integrate the Gandhian spirit of science with the modern practice of science and technology in order to realize their full potential for the material as well as moral progress of human beings.
I. Study of Nature: Quest for Truth
In the pre-modern era there was no dichotomy between "God" and "Nature", as the God manifested through various forms of "nature". Although de-mythologization of the "nature" heralded the beginning of science in the 17th century Europe, most of natural scientists' quests for the exploration of nature were motivated by their desire to know the "glory of the God."
In the beginning scientists were mainly motivated to understand the mystery of nature and to explore the objective and universal principles governing the natural events. Their efforts were directed to discover the laws and principles that governed nature so that they could be used to predict and control natural phenomena so as to harness them for the benefit of human beings. For scientists, truth is nothing but "true and valid" knowledge about nature.
The claim of scientific truth has always been to distinguish "what I believe" from "what we believe." In the scientific discourse any notion of truth can only be accepted as such if it is based on a collective agreement or "solidarity principle".4 The belief in objective explanations is nothing more than the "inference to the best explanation."
Like many natural scientists Gandhi's quest for truth was not only oriented towards exploring the 'glory of God' but also towards realizing God or the Ultimate Truth. His attitude is echoed when he exhorted a group of science students (of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) to emulate the great Indian scientists who pursued science not as career but as a vocation - their inner calling. He remarked: "J. C. Bose and P. C. Ray cultivated science for the sake of it; ... their researches have been devoted in order to enable us to come nearer to our Maker. I feel that we are placed on this earth to adore our Maker to know ourselves, in other words, to realize ourselves and therefore to realize our destiny."5
For Gandhi, God is nothing but the embodiment of truth which is manifested in various forms of nature. So, when one explores God one actually explores truth in the forms of nature. For Gandhi, God is the "Ultimate Reality" or 'Supreme Reality' which is beyond the finite capacity of human mind, yet a supreme goal for humanity to strive for.
However, Gandhi's search was for a "higher order of reality" probably higher than the conception of reality of natural sciences. Gandhi, like a scientist, acknowledged the existence of an independent reality irrespective of our own sensory perception or mental conditioning. He said: "when our eyes are open, we see the sun; when they are closed, it is not seen. The change here has been in our sense of sight, not in the fact of the sun's existence."6
In this sense Gandhi is a believer in the scientific notion of objective reality which is independent of our sense perception.
For Gandhi the notion of truth was much broader than could be grasped by science or reason. He believed that there was a reality beyond what is being perceived by the senses. It is this "transcendental reality" that gives meaning and value to our life and action. Unlike modern day scientists' pursuit of knowledge for wealth, Gandhi's search for truth was not 'to make it a source of income, a happy facility or a gainful input in the commerce between nations'. Although he conceded that higher wages increased happiness, material progress are all urgently needed necessities yet he argued that man's true welfare lies in the pursuit of truth for self realization. Similarly all discoveries of science and breakthrough of technology should become, above all and for all, the noble and solemn liturgy of truth.
For Gandhi, truth is permanent, it always exists. But this permanency was not ultimate as he adopted "a dynamic, open ended, relative and experimentative approach towards truth."7 On relative perception of truth he explains, "what may appear truth to one person will often appear untruth to another person. But that need not worry the truth seeker."8 However, it doesn't mean that Gandhi was in pursuit of "relative truth." In fact, his relativism has an ultimate aim, that is, to achieve "Absolute Truth." He himself underlined this point: "For me, truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truth fullness in thought also, and not only the "relative truth" of our conception, but the "Absolute Truth", the Eternal Principle, that is, God."9 Gandhi's ultimate reality is nothing but the law of the universe. He Wrote: "there is an unalterable law governing everything that exists or lives. It is not a blind law; for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings. That law, then, which governs all life, is God. Law and the law- giver are one."
Gandhi acknowledged that though the ultimate reality is the Absolute Truth, relative truths are not unrealities. They are in fact, "temporal truths" as against the "Absolute Truth." They are "the fleeting glimpse of Truth." They are not useless. They are true in their own kind and true only as far as they go and for all practical purposes.10 Gandhi accepted the limitation of the human mind and believed that "through the instrumentality of this body we cannot see face to face Truth which is Eternal." To a question : 'how, then to realize Absolute Truth', Gandhi said, "as long as I have not realized this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must meanwhile, be my beacon, my shield and buckler".11
Thus, for Gandhi "relative truth" is a means to achieve the end that is Absolute Truth. Like a scientist, Gandhi was in pursuit of progressive knowledge.
Although Gandhi believed that there was a Universal Truth that he equated with God, he never claimed that he or any other human could ever comprehend this Absolute in an adequate way.
Gandhi's notion of "truth" was combined with humility, unlike the 'scientific truth' which was based on arrogance of exclusion His method to realise truth was based on non-violence while search of truth in science is based on torturing of nature (in the name of scientific experiment) to reveal its truths.12 Gandhi's critiques of science and technology were basically concerned with this arrogant and inhuman tendency of subjugation and surrender of human beings to its instrumental rationality. Therefore, Gandhi advocated for inculcating "human spirit" in the ontological premises of modern science.
Truth for its own sake?
Gandhi's quest for truth was not for its own sake, but for some immediate or near future applications. For him an idea or theory which could not be put into practice had no value or worth. Gandhi always believed that "no matter what your convictions are, they are worthless if you do not implement them with deeds or rather they are worse than worthless. Not to practice what one believes is untruth; I would say dishonesty."13
However, Gandhi argued that real progress in our knowledge and techniques will come through our dispassionate dedication to our vocation.
We find a strong symmetrical conviction in Gandhian thought to prove that himsa or violence could be conquered only through ahimsa or non- violence. Truth is self- evident in the sense that it does not require to be proclaimed forcefully. As stated by Gandhi, the champion of truth or the seeker of truth must have strong faith in the power of truth and he must show patience and calm in realizing the truth. Gandhi made continuous experiments to arrive at the truth and succeeded in proving that eternal peace could be achieved only through non-violent pursuit of truth (Satyagraha).
Thus, although Gandhi's notion of truth transcended the narrow conception of truth articulated by mainstream science, he saw great possibilities in science to realize 'the Ultimate Truth.'
II. Gandhi's Views on Science
Gandhi has been often portrayed as 'anti -science' and 'anti - technology'14 and there is abundant literature on Gandhi's critical views on technology but very little efforts to understand his views on science. In recent years some scholars have taken his writings on machinery, khadi, health and modern civilization to construct his views on science and they have shown that there are numerous direct references to science in Gandhi's discussions with his co-workers and with fellow countrymen.15
Although science as such was not the primary concern of Gandhi, he frequently invoked scientific terminology in his writings and correspondence with people.
In his life and (teachings there is an embedded passion for the 'spirit of science' which could be called 'the scientific culture.' Gandhi had a real appreciation for scientific education and he made distinction between 'education in science' and other branches of learning in the following words:
"Education of man in science is the opposite of literacy training, which, he kept repeating, does not add one inch to one's moral stature. By its learning and research, science is real education. It applies the mind to the reality around us. It promotes objectivity and grounded in the rigorous and disinterested pursuit of truth, forcing out all prejudice and illusion. Education under such conditions is schooling in austerity and courage. ... But science, which can be used to serve man, can also be used against Man. Science is not good or evil but its use and users are."16
Gandhi wanted to promote and nurture science and research culture in the country. Gandhi understood the role of science and its need for all colonial countries, of course first to meet the requirements of day to day life of common people. He strongly urged the scientists to interact with people to understand their problems and requirements while conducting their research. He emphasised on direct intervention of scientific community in the village development programme and chided them for being ignorant and unresponsive towards the day to day life problems of ordinary people.
"I sent a questionnaire to several of our well - known doctors and chemists, asking them to enlighten me on the chemical analysis and different food values of polished and unpolished rice, jaggery and sugar, and so on. Many friends have responded only to confess that there has been no research in some of the directions I had inquired about. Is it not a tragedy that no scientist should be able to give me the chemical analysis of such a simple article as gur? The reason is that we have not thought of the villager.... What kinds of laboratory research shall we have to go in for?"17
It is clear that Gandhi was not opposed to modern science; rather he wanted scientifically informed knowledge to formulate policy decisions.
Gandhi strongly believed that a thorough understanding of the science of rural crafts and practices was needed to improve the life of the rural people.
Thus it appears that Gandhi was fully aware of the significance of the scientific knowledge and its role in improving the material conditions of human life. He criticised the scientific community for using science as an 'improved means' to achieve 'unimproved goals'. It was not only the blind application of science that disturbed Gandhi but also the method it resorted to for acquiring knowledge which, according to him, was questionable.
III. Methods of acquiring or realizing truth
The method used by Gandhi in his quest for truth was based on the spirit of science. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth he underlined the fact that the method he used to realize the truth was characterized by its "accuracy, fore-thought, and minuteness." He had no finality about his conclusions which were always open- ended. At every step, he subjected the next step to a process of acceptance or rejection and on that basis he acted.
Thus, his method for the search of the reality was very much scientific. He never believed that truth could be revealed or attained through mere meditation or some other mystic practices. He suggested that: "Scientific knowledge requires constant probing into the way and wherefore of every little process that you perform. A scientific mind will not be satisfied with having things scientific just on faith. He will insist on finding a basis in reason. Faith becomes lame when it ventures into matters pertaining to reasons. Its field begins where reason's ends. Conclusions based on faith are unshakable whereas those based on reason are liable to be unstable and vulnerable to superior logic'.18
Gandhi always linked knowledge to morality and he wanted to bring about basic but extensive moral changes in society. His criticism of modern science is based on the fact that it does not contribute in enhancing the moral stature of man.
He never sought to provide a grand theory. He worked out his theory - his truth - as praxis, and understood that it had to evolve constantly in relation to his and other people's experiences. His method was essentially dialogical, one in which knowledge* is seen to arise from discussion rather than from a unified philosophical system which is provided in the form of a treatise from which the internal contradictions have, ideally, been removed. Gandhi was aware that the result of this kind of dialogical method may appear to have inconsistencies, as he observed: "I must admit my many inconsistencies. But since I am called "Mahatma" I might well endorse Emerson’s saying that 'foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' There is, I fancy, a method in my inconsistency".19
Gandhi believed that any true understanding is dialogic in nature because through such dialogues, systems of knowledge are both challenged and enriched. Ronald Terchek argued that he adopted the Enlightenment position 'of valorizing rational debate over coercion to solve problems.’ However, whereas it was a confident belief of the enlightenment philosophers that rationality was indivisible and universal, Gandhi understood that different peoples have their own definitions of what is 'rational' and to insist on the universality of one form of rationality over another and to thereby justify the imposition of one's will on others, represents no more than coercion by another name. In the process, alternative rationalities are silenced.20
For Gandhi, in order to realize truth one must be a satyagrahi and one must also have absolute faith in the power of truth, and devotion to this truth should be accepted as the sole justification for our existence Ignorance is the root cause of all evils. Truth is by nature self-evident. “As soon as you remove the cobweb of ignorance that surrounds it, it shines clear", he argued.21
Gandhi's method of realizing truth was "self suffering without causing any hurt to others." He resorted to the practice of self- suffering (fast, penance, fast unto death, silence etc) time and again for the cause of truth, which he defined in his own way. "A seeker of truth is better trained to amplify his consciousness. His forays into the body can provide new insights and medicines more delicately attuned to it."
Gandhi advocated a method that is based on systemic and holistic perspective. For instance, his idea of naturopathy is based on harmony. Gandhi had a systemic and holistic understanding of human body and that was why he wrote.: "A happy working of the human machine depends upon the harmonious activity of the various component parts. If all these work in an orderly manner, the machine runs smoothly. If even one of the essential parts is out of order, it comes to a stop. For instance, if the digestion is out of order, the whole body becomes slack."22
Gandhi rejected the duality of body and mind because he believed that "a body which contains diseased mind can never be anything but diseased." He wrote: "the present science of medicine is divorced from religion. A man who attends to his daily Namaz or his Gayatri mantras in the proper spirit need never get ill. A clean spirit must build a clean body. I am convinced that the main rules of religious conduct conserve both the spirit and the body."23 The contemporary thinking in modern health science has acknowledged this holistic perspective to tackle the complex health issues.
The other attribute of Gandhian method is that he never tried to impose consensus on what is truth, rather he persevered, even at the peril of his life, for what he perceived as truth. He believed in the democratic participation of scientists as well as lay people in the construction of knowledge. He had his own notion of truth which he wanted others to realize for themselves. He firmly believed that others could not be convinced by his points of view through force but only by non-violent means which required self suffering. The question arises: why did Gandhi believe that self suffering will change the hearts and minds of others (opponents) to accept his notion of truth? Gandhi's early socialization in religious plurality and his exposure to Christian beliefs and values in forgiveness and self-sacrifice sowed the seeds in Gandhi of his faith in suffering. The meditation and suffering of the Buddha, Mahaveera and the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus thoroughly convinced Gandhi that ultimate truth could be realized only through suffering and self- sacrifice. Was Gandhi truly rational in his approach?
Rationalism in Gandhi
Gandhi's rationalism was not limited only to "instrumental" or "technical rationality" rather, it was much broader in scope, meaning and application.
Rationalism in Gandhi could be found in his commitment to the purity of means and end relationship. He always believed that achievement of ends through any means is not justifiable for ends achieved through impure means could be retained only through impure means. This was the reason that Gandhi always advocated that freedom, peace, harmony and justice attained through non-violent means will ensure continuous perpetuation of our achievements.
For Gandhi, India was a big laboratory to test some of his ideas (hypotheses) which he had formulated on the basis of his personal experiences in South Africa and also his exposure to powerful ideas of Western thinkers.
Like a scientist Gandhi never took a blind path. Like scientists he was aware that deviant cases (anomaly in the empirical data) need to be accounted for by theoretical propositions. He never allowed his emotions or outside pressure to overtake him and lose his sense of reason and logic.
Gandhi was a bitter critique of instrumental rationality of science dictating the entire aspect of human life. Gandhi insisted and argued at length that the notion of rationality, which was first formulated in the name of science in the 17th century and developed and modified to practical and public domains by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, had within it the predisposition to give rise to the horrors of modern industrial life, to destructive technological frames of mind, to rank commercialism, to the surrender of spiritual casts of mind, and to the destruction of the genuine pluralism of traditional life. Therefore, he advocated the incorporation of human values into the body of science and technical practices.
Gandhi pleaded not for the suppression of reason, but for a due recognition of that in us which sanctifies reason itself. Gandhi would test his faith with his reason but he would not allow his reason to destroy his faith. Gandhi strived for the higher order of reality which could encompass the entire humanity. He argued that his law of non-violence was a general law of the entire mankind. He wrote in Young India: "We have to make truth and non-violence not matters for mere individual practice, but for practice by groups, communities and nations. Non-violence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force. The rishis (seers) who discovered the law of non-violence were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Willington. Having themselves known the use of arms, they realized their uselessness and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence, but through non-violence".24
Thus, we can say that Gandhi's notion of truth is much more comprehensive and beyond the scope of method of science but much more relevant to understand contemporary problems. The modern scientists need to integrate Gandhian perspective in their practice of science.
Ambiguities in Gandhian truth and its methods
For Gandhi the concept of truth is not static but, like the scientific notion of truth, ever-dynamic.
His notion of the ultimate truth becomes more problematic when he acknowledges that he has not been able to realize it. Yet, he makes an attempt to describe it's (the Ultimate Truth) features. He describes the features of the Ultimate Truth as follows: "The little fleeting glimpses.... that I have been able to have of truth can hardly convey an idea of the indescribable lustre of Truth, a million times more intense that that of the Sun". The question is: how Gandhi knew that "the Truth is a million times more intense, brighter than that of the Sun"? It seems Gandhi's search is based on speculation, imagination or simply traditional myth.
The main danger in Gandhi's thinking was his confusion of truth with religion. He wanted to solve political problems in the name of truth, reason, though he admitted that "faith transcends reason."
Gandhi realized that truth can be reached through a complex dialogue in which reason alone is not sufficient; therefore, he suggested that the arguments need to be reinforced with "emotional and political pressure." Gandhi observed: "all my life the very insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise. I saw in later life that this spirit was an essential part of satyagraha."25 In this sense Gandhi's method diverges from the method of science, which is not based on compromise or give and take relationship. Recent studies in the sociology of science have shown that scientific knowledge is not an outcome of the impartial and objective experimentation of nature. It is, rather, the outcome of the rational consensus evolved among the scientific community through the process of negotiation.26
Although Gandhi advocated "dialogical method" for the realization of truth, he himself violated this methodological principle when he closed himself off to dialogues on several occasions. In his own family he acted as a high-handed patriarch, coercing his wife and sons into following the path he decreed as "true." He often ran his Ashram in an autocratic manner, disciplining those who did not accept his dictates.
Gandhi wanted to realize the "absolute truth" not only individually but also collectively. But the kind of truth he was advocating became Utopian in practice. Gandhi had paired his 'means and ends' methods in transcendental forms making it unattainable in its true sprits. While scientific truth is always progressive, it is an unending process making it compatible with the emerging requirements and challenges of the each generation.
IV. Conclusion: Relevance of Gandhian Approach to Truth
Gandhi's notion of truth and his method of realizing it have shown the unique quality of combining "reason" with "faith". He would never accept anything unless brought to the touchstone of reason and subjected to scientific inquiry. "My life is largely governed by reason," said Gandhi, and "when it fails, it is governed by a superpower force that is faith."27 He was against the "instrumental rationality" as the sole principle governing our life. Rather he emphasized more on the "purity of means and ends." It is easier to evolve consensus on the goal but very difficult to arrive at consensus on the means to realize it. If there is no consensus on the method of inquiry there would be no unanimity on the findings of inquiry and then people would keep questioning each other's findings (truth) .Then, truth will keep on changing sides as per its convenience which would be dangerous. It is because this variant of truth would require to be backed by force to assert it. In this situation it is not the truth but the force would be asserted in the name of truth.
In this sense Gandhi's notion of non-violent truth becomes relevant. Truth cannot be violent and it does not need force for its manifestation; it is omnipresent and omni felt. Gandhi equated these features or attributes of truth with God not in any religious sense which is generally understood in the common parlance. Truth is embodiment of morality. Truth backed by force can win only the body of the human beings while non-violent truth ensures winning of people's hearts. Gandhi wanted to realize this truth and he believed that once the status of truth is self realized it would be whole heartedly adopted and practiced by the people without any external force. Gandhi always endeavoured to achieve or realize the higher order of truth and not get stuck in the "relative truths" or "subjective truths" and he strongly believed that any kind of relativising and subjectivising of truth may undermine the scope for justice.
Gandhi's ideas of combining head and hand, in the practice of science and a concern for the welfare of rural people on the part of scientific community is very much relevant for the scientists who are insulated from the suffering of people in their surroundings. Gandhi believed that fruitful and substantive knowledge would be produced only when scientists collaborate not only with other scientists and researchers but also with the rural people or lay-men whose life would be directly affected by such knowledge. For Gandhi science that eliminates employment without guaranteeing substitute work is bad but "the technique that alleviates drudgery like inventing the sewing machine, would be of first rate".
It is the era of globalization and economic liberalization and there is a shift in the cognitive orientation of the scientific community from "knowing for its own sake" to "knowing with an eye on patent"28 or what Krishna has described as replacement of "science as public good" by "science as market good".29 As a consequence of this trend even essential commodities such as life-saving drugs are becoming out of reach of common people in many countries. In this context Gandhi's call for the democratization of science to bring people's knowledge and techniques in dialogue with the modern science to produce the "public science" for the welfare of the entire society requires immediate attention of our policy-makers.
Notes and References:
Source: Adapted from the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Volume 31, Number 1, April-June 2009
* MADHAV GOVIND is Assistant Professor, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-110067, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.