SCIENCE AND DOGMA

In contemporary life, we have to constantly face contradictions between science on the one hand and dogma of various kinds on the other. Dogmatic beliefs, like science, have come to be a part of our very existence.

Arising out of unquestioned acceptance of religion, custom, convention or tradition, they have, over generations, acquired an authority out of all proportion. Fortunately, of course, everything in religion, custom, convention and tradition is not dogma.

A well-known example of the contradiction between science and dogma, relates to our own origin that is, the origin of man. Modern biology tells us that life has evolved on this earth from non-living things as a result of evolution of complex chemicals from simpler ones: an evolution that slowly developed into the biological evolution.

On the other hand, all religions tell us that man has been put on this earth as preformed man, an act of creation by the will of God. The two opinions are entirely and absolutely contradictory. Which one should one believe in? If in your mind dogma takes precedence over science, you will probably classify yourself as a creationist, if on the other hand you have a scientific approach you are likely to be an evolutionist. Let us see why.


P M Bhargava
Former
Vice – Chairman, National Knowledge Commission,
Founder cum Chairman,
Centre for Molecular Biology, Hyderabad

Dogma, by definition, is an opinion or a tenet accepted entirely on the basis of faith, without questioning. Questioning is simply not allowed by the adherents of dogma. They may seek clarification, but never question a dogmatic belief. The contradiction with science begins right here. Science does not accept anything without questioning and entirely on the basis of faith.

The method of science is totally incompatible with the view that a man or an authority exists-or has ever existed-whose opinion must be accepted entirely on faith, without questioning. In other words, science does not accept the existence of high priests of any hue or colour.

This is, of course, not to say that there are no self-styled high priests in science. It is only to make the point that whether or not they like it, in science they are bound to be questioned-and often by people of seemingly lower status, for there is no tenable hierarchy of status in science.

Much of the dogma we see around us arises out of religion. The problems become acute because the origins of religion and science are about the same. Probably both arose as a result of the inbuilt desire in man to find answers to question for example, questions pertaining to natural phenomena.

What are the nonliving materials that we see or feel around us all the time, such as air, water, minerals and rock, made of? What is the nature of the physical phenomena that we witness so frequently, such as heat, light, sound, thunder and lightning? What is the basis of extra-terrestrial phenomena that have been known for so long, such as the periodic rising of the sun, the moon and the stars, and the occurrence of eclipses? And what is the nature of the phenomena we see associated with life, like birth, disease, growth and death? Questions such as these must have been asked by primitive men.

Probably, it is the desire to find answers to questions like these that provided one of the important motivations for the formation of religions-pagan or codified (by codified religions, I mean major religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity). Since the scientific method that took formal shape only some eight centuries ago, has also attempted to provide answers to the same questions, it is clear that both religion and science have treaded the same ground; often, the two have been competitors.

On account of differences in the fundamental attributes of religion and science, the nature and character of the answers provided to questions by the two approaches have been different-often contradictory. In the case of religion one sub-set of these answers is represented by dogmatic beliefs. Hence the conflict between science and dogma.

Let us continue our comparison-rather contrasting-further. Scientific answers are verifiable, repeatable, and objective, and do not depend on the whim, fancy or desire of a particular individual. This is not true of answers that have come to us as dogmatic beliefs. Such beliefs represent the fear of the unknown.

Whereas scientific answers represent an understanding of the known. In the case of dogmatic beliefs, the last word has already been said. In the case of answers arrived at through the application of the method of science, the last word shall never be said as all scientific answers are tentative and the results of a consensus amongst the scientists of the time. The consensus is, of course, arrived at through the application of the method of science.

All new knowledge in science must be consistent with known and established observations. Dogmatic beliefs, including the so-called miracles (for example, the materialisation of objects by a wave of hand) are often inconsistent with known and established observations. Science progresses through modification of a part of the existing knowledge and not by replacement of the entire body of knowledge. On the other band, a new set of dogmatic beliefs often attempts to replace fully the existing sets of such beliefs.

There is thus no overlap between Christian and Hindu dogma. Growth of scientific knowledge is a continuous process and science is, therefore, evolutionary; by contrast, a set of dogmatic beliefs once founded, continue substantially unchanged.

Texts on which the followers of dogmatic beliefs depend, are generally ancient. For the followers of science, the more modern the text is, the better it is. For those who believe in dogma, the founders of the dogma who lived in the remote past are the events of the greatest concern. For the followers of science, on the other hand, the events of today and the likely events of tomorrow are the events of the greatest concern.

Customs and practices arising out of dogmatic beliefs do not basically change with time, whatever changes are brought out, are due to forces external to these beliefs, such as science itself. By contrast, the techniques used in science keep on improving with time, and the impetus for the improvement comes from within the framework of the method of science. In other words, while dogmatic beliefs are backward-looking, science is forward-looking.

After this exercise in comparing science with dogma, let us look at some more examples taken from our everyday life where we are required to make a choice between the dictates of science and those of dogma. Belief in rebirth and soul is a widely accepted dogma even though there is no reliable evidence either in favour of rebirth or in favour of the existence of soul. In fact, what we know of modern biology makes rebirth as we understand this term in common parlance, not only untenable but absolutely impossible. The same can be said of the concept of soul.

It is, therefore, understandable why probably over 99 percent of the distinguished biologists of today around the world categorically reject the existence of either the phenomenon of rebirth or soul. In fact, it is belief in rebirth and soul that gives credibility to a host of social evils such as the caste system, in the minds of people. If you are born in a lower caste, only you are to blame. It is your deeds in the past life for which you are now paying the penalty-something which no one can prove!

A sense of superiority on account of circumstances of birth that is reflected in communalism, casteism, stateism or linguistic chauvinism, is also a result of the dogmatic belief that the circumstances of birth, rather than the genetic make-up of an individual are the primary determinants of a person's ability, capability or competence. Such beliefs go against the very grain of modern biology which, during the last 30 years, has allowed us to understand the basis of similarities or dissimilarities in the entire living universe.

We today understand the mechanism of heredity and the nature, structure and function of the genetic material, that is, DNA. Fatalism also arises out of such dogmatic beliefs. It deters people from exercising their rights and from raising their voice against in humanism, oppression and exploitation.

Let us take another example: that of the concept of death. According to all religious beliefs, death is a unitary event. When a person dies, he simply dies irrevocably. He is, therefore, either alive or dead. Modern biology has shown us that this concept is inaccurate. Even though a person may die, for example as a result of his heart becoming non-functional, he can be brought back to life by putting in another heart. An organism may die but certain tissues of it may stay alive.

Even if a tissue dies, its cells may not die and could be taken out, and maintained for a very long time (if not for ever) in the laboratory. If one remembers that each cell of a living organism carries the entire blue-print for the whole organism, and if we can maintain the cells of a person  who is otherwise dead and gone, we theoretically retain the possibility of creating an identical person from any of these cells.

It has indeed been possible to do so in the case of plants. One can today raise a whole carrot plant from a single cell of virtually any part of the carrot plant.  

The everyday life of many of us, indeed, centres around a host of dogmatic beliefs. For example, a large number of people in our country believe in the existence of heaven and hell, and in astrology. These beliefs satisfy all the criteria of dogmatic beliefs that stand out in straight contradiction to “the sum total of scientific knowledge we have today, Dogmatic beliefs are widely prevalent in regard to what we may eat and how should we go about curing a particular disease, which beliefs, again, contradict the knowledge we have acquired about nutrition and about health and disease through the application of the method of science.

We cling to these beliefs tenaciously and work up fantastic arguments to show that they are compatible with science, because science is something we cannot reject.

Let me end by  saying that the pressures on us to cling to these beliefs that prevent us from progressing, come from the privileged because it is in their interest that people continue to hold these beliefs and thus remain ignorant. Indeed, if the masses were to shed their ignorance through proper education that encourages them to question such beliefs, and retain only what appeals to their reason, those who are privileged on account of circumstances of their birth would soon cease to have their privileges.

Our salvation lies not in continuing to adhere to dogma, but in following the precept of Lord Buddha who said: "Believe nothing merely because you have been told it or, because it is traditional or because you yourself have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher, but whatever after due examination and analysis you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings, take it as your guide."

Source: ‘Angels, Devil and Science’ by Pushpa M.Bhargava and Chandana Chakrabarti Published National Book Trust, India.

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