A lifetime of scientific thinking



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BOOK REVIEW: "ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME," by PROFESSOR CARLO FONSEKA. Publisher: S. Godage & Brothers (Private) Ltd (2016)


By Shyamon Jayasinghe


At St Joseph’s College Colombo I had a vivid image-memory of the young Carlo Fonseka as an artiste who drew together an informal kind of singing club at Bonjean Memorial Hall. The radio was the mass media device during those days and I remember him and his soul mates flock around it to join the singing during "Listeners’ Requests." As a junior, I gravitated toward the flock with some trepidation in order to add my humble input into the vocal outpour. Sunil Shantha was the star then. The handsome singer with the sitar in hand. As we now know only too well, the artiste in Carlo never left him even though he was soon to turn into a celebrity exponent of scientific thinking.


The last-mentioned phase commenced after Carlo Fonseka left school to join the prestigious Colombo Medical College. He performed brilliantly and joined the academic staff. However, he was not destined to hide within the cloistered walls of esoteric academia. We saw him become a celebrity figure inspiring people to use their brains and think for themselves about the evidence of their beliefs.


Carlo disputed the claims that the phenomenon of fire walking was evidence of divine intervention. I attended one of his famous fire walking talks and demonstrations. Here was an academic defending scientific thinking against a widespread flood of superstition. At that stage in his life, Carlo was simply heroic and anti-establishment. When he turned 18 he had left behind at school his inherited Catholic baggage and he now opened up his fertile mind to the world at large. From the point of view of traditional superstition one singular attack of this kind can be infectious in the sense that thinking people may begin to wonder if other such claims to divine intervention are also that hollow.


Since the days of fire-walking and now, Prof. Carlo Fonseka tumbled through life in various extra capacities and roles. Without doubt, Carlo often became a subject of controversy; maybe in different kinds of controversy that thinking men like him do get embroiled in. However, his new release, Essays of a Lifetime, redefines himself as a scientific thinker. The book is an anthology of some of the many speeches he has delivered as well as some of his articles. The topics include medicine, education, politics, economics, Marxism-Leninism, society, philosophy, religion and Buddhist philosophy. Throughout the pages one sees a sharply reflective mind trying to look at events through the eyes of an empiricist who believes in naturalistic explanation of all phenomena.


Carlo was loved at the Medical College and during his numerous public lectures as a charismatic teacher. He was very much a ‘public man,’ and he spoke on different subjects at different places. At schools he spoke science and scientific thinking and students would love to listen to him. He was invited everywhere because many liked to listen to a man who could put across a complex subject in simple ways.


One can, therefore, hail Carlo as a pioneer in propagating scientific thinking in Sri Lanka along with Prof. Abraham Kovoor. In this sense, he has played a historic role.


Carlo had the knack for explaining things and was therefore best positioned to take the batten from Dr E.W Adikaram. In today’s context, to be a kind of Richard Dawkins. In fact, the book does carry a eulogy for Dawkins. Says the writer, "No more lucid explainer of the riddles of existence than Dawkins ever breathed." Being a Dawkins fan myself I loved that. Dawkins is today’s global intellectual star who is on a mission to encourage scientific thinking. Fortune Magazine rates him as one of the world’s top three intellectuals (alongside Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky).


With apologies for generalising I would say that despite decades of free education Sri Lankans are still lazy thinkers; a most gullible lot. Astrologers abound and it is easy to spread a false story. Divine intervention is still widely believed and sought after and clever Kattadiyas make good money. Political leaders shamelessly dash coconuts asking for divine curses on enemies. Faith healing missionaries keep audiences spellbound. Schools do teach science but students are not encouraged to think scientifically. Subject content is studied for exams and the scientific thinking habit ends after uploading the textual content at exams. Science is divorced from lives.


Essays of a Lifetime may be seen as embodying Prof. Carlo Fonseka’s long journey in exploring some contemporary issues of interest with a scientific mind and method. His style is appealing to a very broad spectrum of readers.


In the chapter on fire walking the author points out how he set out with the scientific method of observing the significant facts of a phenomenon (fire-walking), formulating a hypothesis to explain it, deducing expected consequences from that hypothesis and testing such expectations by way of observation once again. The hypothesis in this case is described tersely thus: "If the duration of application of a stimulus (heat on the feet) is shortened beyond a critical limit, the expected response of being burnt will not occur, no matter how strong the stimulus may be."


As is clear from the above illustration, observation of occurrences through sense perception lies at the beginning and end of the process of scientific investigation. By observing through our senses (or senses aided by devices) one decides to accept or reject any claims to the truth. It is all empirical observation that beckons one in scientific investigation.


The book offers a defence of empiricism as the path to knowledge: "Self-evidently the knowledge on which the whole apparatus of modern civilisation, consisting of computers, the internet television, radio, telephone, the printing press, motor vehicles, ships, airplanes, microwave ovens, fertilizer, antibiotics, kidney machines, cardiac pacemakers, weapons of mass destruction-the list is endless-is built has been acquired by the empirical method or the scientific method." (page 185)" Given the power to change the world that scientific knowledge has conferred on humankind empiricism has emerged as the reigning theory of knowledge."


This is a good response to the perennially propagated view of religionists that science hasn’t all the answers and that one must look to supernatural sources. Acceptance of such sources on the basis of faith and blind faith is, in fact, a suspension of reason. To be sure, scientific judgments are derived from inductive reasoning from evidence available and since there is always a possibility that fresh evidence can theoretically upset such judgments no scientific conclusion carries certainty. We assume that the sun will rise every morning; what if it doesn’t one fine day? If contrary evidence emerges then scientists revise their theories. This is the track on which scientists move. That’s how it is. Be that as it may!


Carlo points out how medicine itself is based on empirical evidence. "Modern medicine works on the basis that the human body is a material system that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry to the letter and that supernatural forces are not relevant to its practice or efficacy." Medicine can explain illnesses caused through naturalistic processes. Then why posit an intervening deity or devil? We are reminded of the brilliant Franciscan friar and philosopher called William of Ockham ( 1287-1347) when he admonished investigators to avoid introducing unnecessary entities in explaining phenomena. Isaak Newton repeated Ockham when he stated," We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." Stephen Hawkins developed the principle further when he asserted in his "A Brief History of Time":


"We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam's razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed."


The attempt in the book to work out a theory of ethics based on the empirical approach, however, is overworked. The effort is to "explore the possibility of deriving universally valid principles of human morality from scientific rationality." In effect, the author proposes that we base a morality upon an observable fact of nature. To him the observable fact is that, "what humans endeavour to do is to avoid suffering and pursue happiness and maximise happiness on earth." From this he concludes that "a rational morality would be one calculated to minimise suffering and maximise happiness on earth." This is functional behaviour and not ethical behaviour. If one believes that one saves money by not having meals and thus avoids taking meals one is behaving functionally (at least theoretically). The goal of happiness itself has been dominating ethical theory for ages since Aristotle (384-322 BC) but every thinker specified that this happiness is a mere state of mind that is the outcome of a different end, which thus constitutes the ‘moral end’ we look for. To Aristotle it was the pursuit of virtue and thus the real goal of ethical behaviour was virtue-in the way he defined it. Religious people might say that happiness is the union with God or Brahma. One can also be happy by murdering one’s enemies. Is this moral? The important thing, therefore, is to enunciate the kind of moral action through which one might pursue happiness.


The long and involved narrative of Socialism, Marxism and Leninism is presented with brevity, intelligibility and simplicity. Once again, the question whether Marxism is a science is raised; but here left unanswered with the writer himself wondering whether it matters. Carlo was a card-carrying member of the LSSP and his theoretical Marxist leanings have not left him. He believes in the idealism of the socialist state and thinks that the collapse of the first experiment in trying out such a state (the Soviet Union) was just one instance of experimental failure that isn’t enough to dislodge it. The example of the Scottish scientific researchers who cloned the sheep Dolly is cited. It took researchers 277 experiments before that succeeded. Unfortunately, socio-political "experiments" with men and women cannot be done and redone in laboratory settings and one has to spend time in serious analysis before a decision is made. It may still be argued that Marxism was flawed to begin with. For instance, it has been widely criticised that a socialist community runs counter to a human nature, which is essentially selfish. Remember Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene?’ That the Soviet state took over private property on "behalf of the community’ was partly because of the impracticality of a social community collectively taking it over and running it. The Soviet system ended up as a behemoth of a hopelessly non-incentive and inefficient fascist bureaucracy. On the other hand, the strength of the capitalist system is that it is incentive driven leading to economic growth. Marx saw the exploitive nature of a capitalism of the old crude kind. Capitalism has, since the days of Marx and Lenin, proved its resilience in meeting challenges to minimise exploitation and extend welfare.


The born Catholic that he was, Carlo has obviously been attracted by the empiricism and modernity in Buddhism. "Of all great religions," says the writer," Buddhism has been the least vulnerable to the intellectual onslaught of science." The question taken up for discussion is whether Buddhism is empiricist. However, in the relevant chapter the writer is content to state the different points of scholars. It is a good summary of the debate that leaves the field open for interpretation. Professor KN Jayatilleka did an exhaustive study of the issue and came to the conclusion that Early Buddhism was definitely empiricist but with two exceptions. First, ‘sense perception’ in his case included extrasensory perception like telepathy and clairvoyance. Second, there is the ‘nirvanic' experience, which is definitely trans-empirical. KN Jayatilleka’s view was that, ‘the other doctrines including karma and rebirth were inductive inferences based on perception. On the other hand, the evidence for perception-based beliefs about rebirth are hard to come by Jayatilleka relies on hypnotism but there are issues with regard to realising objectivity in hypnotic experiments. For instance, to what extent has the hypnotiser influenced the judgments of the subject?


The discussion of the Kalama Sutta is invigorating. The Buddha’s scientific disposition is very clearly and almost drastically reflected in this Sutta, where he warns us about being cautious of the sources of our beliefs.


Essays of A Lifetime is a good volume of discussion on important contemporary issues expressed in a very readable and interesting manner by Prof. Carlo Fonseka. There are a few brief chapters thrown in at the end that really need not have been inserted. However, that does not diminish the value of this enlightening work by a scholar dedicated to instructing others in scientific thinking.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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