Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India

Meera Nanda’s book Prophets Facing Backward is an extraordinary and compelling book. Few in the West are aware of the alarming confluence of ideas arising out of the contemporary nationalistic politics of India with its endorsement of ‘Vedic science’ and the dominant postmodernist, social constructivist and sociological trends in science studies in the West. Nanda’s book is an intellectual bombshell dropped on this potent combination. No one interested in the ways in which science and culture can interact should ignore this book and the challenging case it makes against the prevailing orthodoxies of much that passes for Western science ‘studies’. It should serve for years to come as a reference point for what can go wrong in science studies when it is allied with fashionable but wrongheaded, and even deeply perverse, manqué ‘epistemologies’, such as those provided in postmodernism, social constructivism and their ilk.

Nanda describes a phenomenon in India that strongly resembles what Jeffery Herf calls ‘reactionary modernism’ in his study of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. This is an outlook that enabled Germans to accept modern scientific technology while at the same time they adopted politically illiberal and reactionary policies and rejected much of the rationality of the enlightenment that informs science. Her thesis is that contemporary India is in the grip of a version of reactionary modernism in which political nationalism is accompanied by technological advance; but the science that informs it has been stripped of its enlightenment context and relocated within the context of nationalistic religion, ‘Vedic Science’. The stripping and relocation fits admirably with doctrines from Western science studies that claim that all knowledge is ‘local’, that scientific belief is culturally caused, that power and knowledge are one, that there is no universal rationality to science and that all scientific belief and its rationality is relative to its socio-political and cultural context.

It is not as if the advocates of ‘Vedic Science’ are avid readers of Foucault’s writings on ‘power/knowledge’, or the sociologists’ advocacy of the Strong Programme for explaining scientific belief, or Latour’s advocacy of might over the possibility of being right in science, and so on for many other such claims in postmodernist and ‘social constructivist’ writings about science. But Nanda tells us that they do cite some Kuhn and Feyerabend, and they do know that in the West there are those who decry modernity and debunk the enlightenment pretensions of defenders of the rationality of science. For such nationalists this is enough to justify their separation of science from broader aspects of enlightenment rationality and its relocation in a different socio-political and religious setting; in so doing they create a distinctive ‘Vedic Science’.

Nanda’s (and Herf’s) analysis challenges the widespread belief that science with its potential for a critical approach to all our beliefs would lead to a more humane and free society liberated from the shackles and superstitions of its past. But there is no necessary connection here; it may do this only sometimes, and other factors can intervene. As both amply illustrate, it is possible within some cultures to accept the technological advances of science while either debunking claims about the superiority of science as a mode of knowing, or reducing the force of such claims by relocating the conception of science within a quite different cultural or religious tradition. Postmodernist doctrines, and much that passes for cultural studies of science, assist in these processes through their own debunking of science and its universal character; science merely becomes another aspect of the effusion of culture, including religion.

Meera Nanda brings to her book a unique combination of background scholarship. She has doctorates in both microbiology and science studies, and a first-hand acquaintance with current Indian politics, its intellectual traditions and its religions. She describes the liberating influence that the study of science had upon her while in India and how it enabled her to reject many of the traditionally held beliefs about religion, the status of women, social and political relationships, ideas about purity and pollution, and the like. But she mentions with dismay her encounter with science studies in the West, dominated as it is by the relativism of postmodernism and the anti-realism and anti-rationality of social constructivism; she became acutely aware of the ways in which it spins its own illusions about itself and the subject it purports to study.

Her initial research that lead to the book had two goals. The first was to show why the prevailing doctrines in science studies, including its feminist and postcolonial epistemologies, did not do justice to science, particularly as a means for enlightenment in non-Western countries. The second was to examine the actual track record of alternative postmodernist approaches to science in non-Western countries, using India as an example. In her view, the old Mertonian norm of ‘organised scepticism’, which bids us to critically examine all beliefs, ought to be institutionalised not only in science but also in the epistemological standpoint of the oppressed.

This project is more fully developed in the book. It contains a strong and brave critique of current Hindu nationalism, its politics, its associated religious doctrines, and its promotion of “Vedic Science”. To this has been added a sustained critique of much that passes for science studies. But in a more positive vein she draws on strands in Indian thought that are closely akin to pragmatism to present an alternative view of science and knowledge. The dalit (untouchable) Ambedkar (1891-1956) developed an account of reason, naturalism, science and humanism that was strongly influenced by Dewey. She advocates Ambedkar’s work as a source for Indian Enlightenment that can pierce through the dark doctrines of Hindu nationalism with its unholy alliance with postmodernist epistemology. He is a prophet facing forward.

In ultimately turning to science journalism she says in retrospect: ‘Without knowing it then, I was speaking the language of the Enlightenment’. But as is well known, these very Enlightenment values have been rejected by postmodernists. So what is ‘Vedic Science’, and what is its connection with the postmodernism that infuses contemporary science studies?

In the West we are familiar with the way in which creationists have co-opted the word ‘science’ to give ‘creation science’ wider credibility. Creationists conduct no experiments, make hardly any observational investigations, do not investigate hypotheses in relation to experiment and observation, and publish their results in no journal that is even vaguely scientific – except their own publications. Their programme of ‘creation science’ has not discovered one novel fact, the discovery of genuine novelty being one of the features of nearly all sciences. Finally, creation science is in conflict with theories of evolution, but fails to show in what way it might be superior either on grounds of evidence, or by offering better explanations, and the like. In these respects it exhibits all the features of a speculative hypothesis that is maintained not by anything that might be vaguely deemed scientific, but by other, extra-scientific interests. In these respects it is certainly a non-science, and there are good grounds for declaring it a pseudo-science.

This is not to say that all speculative doctrines have no scientific value. As Popperians are fond of pointing out, there are doctrines which are advanced on grounds other than those accepted in the sciences, the prime example being Ancient Greek atomism. This was arrived at by philosophical considerations; but it remained a piece of influential metaphysical speculation that had no empirical basis until one was provided towards the end of the 19th century. So even Popperians who are fond of demarcating science from non-science, and from pseudo-science, leave room for a doctrine such as atomism which is non-scientific but not necessarily pseudo-scientific. Of course, one of the things rejected by all postmodernists, and some other approaches in contemporary science studies, is any attempt to draw up such lines of demarcation. But given these broad demarcations, a close comparison can be drawn between ‘Vedic Science’ and ‘creation science’ that sets both at odds with ancient Greek atomism. All three doctrines share the feature of being non-scientific, but atomism left itself open to becoming scientific while the first two doctrines do not, thereby exhibiting all the features of a pseudo-science. Yet both are touted by their advocates as scientific.

In Part I of her book, Nanda gives us an account of what ‘Vedic Science’ is and how it has been adopted by Hindu Nationalists. The sacred Hindu texts, which include the Vedas and the Upanishads, are often regarded as scientific texts in that they allegedly contain all the findings of modern science from physics and biology to mathematics, as well as the methods of science. Such claims are hardly credible since ‘Vedic Science’ needs its legions of decoders and interpreters before any connection can be made to any real science. In this respect its claims are of the same order as those made about the writings of Nostradamus which allegedly contain predictions about all future happenings – if only one has the key to ‘decoding’ or ‘interpreting’ what he says. Though ‘Vedic Science’ might not badly infect current scientific research, the long-term damage it can cause is already well under way as it enters into the Indian education system. Here another parallel can be drawn with ‘creation science’ which also attempts to subvert evolutionary biology in the West.

Importantly for Nanda’s account, the alternative framework in which ‘Vedic Science’ is set makes it different from the other naturalistic and humanist conceptions of science. Crude contrasts are drawn in which it is claimed that ‘Vedic Science’ is superior in being “holistic” and antireductionist while ‘Western science’ is often condemned as ‘positivist’, anti-holistic, strongly reductionist and materialist (or physicalist). ‘Vedic Science’ also locates all of material nature within the framework of divine consciousness, and even endows matter with consciousness and agency. Its advocates even claim that the very essence of Hinduism itself is its scientific thinking. One of the problems here is the tacking-on of an adjective before ‘science’. Science is what it is no matter where it is practiced, in the East or West, or by whom; ‘science’ with a prefix such as ‘Vedic’ or ‘Western’ or the like, ought to arouse suspicion immediately.

This is a heady mixture that even outdoes creation science in its pretensions. It also goes some way towards explaining why many Westerners who are disillusioned with the prevailing conception of science in their culture gravitate towards the more religiously oriented ‘Vedic Science’ in which even the domain of observational experience upon which science is commonly based is expanded to include super-sensory mental experience of ‘alternative levels of reality’ that cannot be encountered in normal experience. More disconcerting is Nanda’s account of how even India’s possession of the atomic bomb, and the science behind it, has been linked to God Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita with its reference to a ‘thousand suns’. On a lighter side she mentions ancient texts that report how warriors of the past could fight for a month on a single meal. Such surprising, venerable reports have led the Indian Government to set up a research programme to investigate these dietary claims for their own troops, thereby hoping to revise even Napoleon’s dictum that an army marches on its stomach. To most Western readers unacquainted with details of current movements in India what Nanda says is both amusing and alarming, like its ‘creation science’ counterpart.

The above is enough to capture the flavour of the ‘Vedic Science’ presented by Nanda. It simply helps itself to the findings of genuine experimental science without being instrumental in producing any of these findings. ‘Vedic Science’ relocates all of science and its advances within a religious, and supernaturalist, framework that turns out to be otiose for those advances. Even if ancient texts are suggestive about, say, what rations warriors might survive on, this, as many philosophers of science would point out, is part of the context of discovery or invention and not part of the context of justification, the area in which scientific testing takes place. The more sinister aspect of ‘Vedic Science’ is its use as a political tool to serve extra-scientific interests, but within a society still intent on technological advance.

Overall ‘Vedic Science’ shares all the pseudo-scientific features of ‘creation science’ and none of the features of, say, ancient atomism that made itself amenable to scientific test. And this brings us to the postmodernist, social constructivist, and other doctrines that inform western science studies, which deny that any distinction can be drawn between science and pseudo-science, and provide ‘Vedic Science’ with an air of legitimacy that it would otherwise lack. How does the link come about? Nanda spells out the connection in Part II of the book, thereby providing a forceful critique of the current state of science studies and the postmodernist epistemological doctrines with which they are often associated. With these doctrines the West makes its own contribution to bolstering ‘Vedic Science’. However not all its Hindu nationalist advocates may have been students of Western postmodernist writers; in some cases Nanda suggests that they have developed some of its central tenets independently. But there is nevertheless an important confluence of ideas with potent results.

Advocates of ‘Vedic Science’ say that both it and ‘Western science’ ultimately express ‘the same truth’, but each in its own culturally relative way. Setting aside whether this is coherent or not, it is accompanied by a relativism characteristic of postmodernism; neither kind of science has the epistemological authority to claim that one is right and the other wrong. Postmodernists and Hindu nationalists will agree that it would be ‘oppressive’ for ‘Western Science’ to pass judgement on any non-western system of belief, including ‘Vedic Science’. Here Nanda locates what she calls ‘epistemic charity’ in making local ‘knowledges’ immune from conflict with rival scientific ‘knowledges’ since at some level they allegedly ‘express the same truth’.

Epistemic ‘charity’ connotes condescension towards other systems of belief and an unwillingness to subject them to any critical scrutiny. But for sociologists of knowledge and postmodernists, the status, and even the very existence, of canons of critical appraisal are up for grabs. These are alleged to have no force beyond the local circumstances in which they are endorsed; so the idea of any universal rationality is to be abandoned. Here one has gone beyond epistemic charity, where vestiges of rationality might be recognised even if not exercised, and into the realm of epistemic nihilism, where there are no universally applicable principles of rationality to be found. The epistemic ‘gift’ is of a poisoned chalice.

Nanda locates a number of sources of epistemic charity or nihilism. One is the Strong Programme of the sociology of scientific knowledge. This, correctly, emphasises the socio-cultural context, or the set of socio-cultural interests, that accompanies belief, whether scientific or non-scientific. But it overshoots its proper target when it claims that the very content of scientific belief is always to be causally explained by socio-cultural contexts, or interests in these. Importantly its ‘Symmetry Tenet’ rules out the possibility of any rational explanation of these beliefs. Thus the following situation becomes possible: for one set of believers in, say, Darwinian evolution, one set of socio-political causes prevail, while for a different set of believers in a rival view, ‘creation science’, a different set of socio-political causes prevail. Who has the correct belief? The Strong Programme is powerless to say. It can only limn the way in which beliefs are allegedly formed; it cannot evaluate the epistemic status of the rival beliefs.

If attempts are made to evaluate beliefs rationally, the Strong Programmers will say that the principles to which one appeals are not universally binding but are only locally accepted as binding. The same situation applies to all cross-cultural belief. In Nanda’s view such epistemic charity on the part of the Strong Programme becomes condescending to non-Western cultures ‘in deny[ing] them the capacity and the need for a reasoned modification of inherited cosmologies in the light of better evidence made available by the methods of modern science’ (p. 127). And this is particularly the case over issues of truth that are downplayed by the Strong Programme. In response it is not enough to quip that any member of a non-Western culture who does look to reasoned modification of belief will have jumped out of their locally accepted traditions of belief and evidence-giving and simply adopted those of another tradition. Nanda develops the case for rejecting the ‘dangerous “gift” of equality of all sciences’. It is a veritable Trojan Horse for those in non-Western societies who are struggling, against their ingrained traditions, beliefs and practices, to obtain even the vestiges of enlightenment, largely won in the West against similar traditions, through the growth of reason and science.

The ‘dangerous gifts’ of epistemic charity are made in other ways in recent science studies, such as the anthropologists’ claim that all science is ethnoscience, Latour’s ‘amodernism’, Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ in relation to science, Harding’s and Longino’s feminist epistemology and science, Spivak’s theory of ‘epistemological violence’, the views of multicuturalists, just to mention a few. In some cases she usefully draws parallels between these views and similar views held by Indian nationalists.

Concerning such epistemological ‘gifts’ to Indians, Nanda makes the acute point that the ‘knowledges’ that might appear to be marginalised to Westerners might not be marginal as far as non-Westerners are concerned; they are often deeply embedded in their own pre-secular and pre-scientific societies and serve to reinforce the power relations of the dominant cultural and religious institutions. But her main point still remains that postmodernists and others give support to right-wing nationalists by claiming that science, no matter where it is practiced, and ‘Vedic Science’ are on the same epistemological footing. And thus we are led down the path of what, following Herf, she calls ‘reactionary modernism’. The various strands of argument are admirably set out and make a compelling and disturbing case concerning the pathology of human thought.

But all is not epistemological darkness in India; there are other intellectual traditions to draw upon that come from Buddhism and are most recently encapsulated in the pragmatism of what she refers to as ‘Ambedkar’s Deweyian Buddha’. There is a strand of pragmatism developed by Ambedkar, but played down in the version of pragmatism of Richard Rorty, that wishes to subject the claims of tradition to examination and test using the very methods that are part of scientific practice. This draws on naturalistic modes of thinking in Indian intellectual traditions that are opposed to the enchanted and mystical thinking that finds its way into ‘Vedic Science’. Recently this tradition has been eclipsed by the dominance of Hindu Nationalism, with the ‘gift’ of postmodernism playing a substantial role on the side. Nanda’s book is a long argument in support of those traditions in Indian thought that align themselves with the best of the Enlightenment, and against those who would turn out its light.

The publishers have on the back cover a quotation in support of the book from the sociologist of science, Steve Fuller: ‘This first detailed examination of postmodernism’s politically reactionary consequences should serve as a wake-up call for all conscientious leftists’. One can agree about the need for a wake-up call. But why just leftists? Not only leftists can be disturbed by reactionary Hindu nationalism. What this passes over is the fact that far too many self-styled leftists have been responsible for promoting the very postmodernist and social constructivist doctrines that are criticised in Nanda’s book. The wake-up call for leftists and others should be not only about the political consequences of postmodernism, but also the whole ragbag of doctrines that comprise postmodernism itself and its allied doctrines in ‘science studies’.

Nanda’s forceful book is a wake-up call not just about the import of Hindu nationalism with its ‘Vedic Science’ but also a bankrupt system of thought, unfortunately all too prevalent in science studies, that gives credence to it. Nanda argues that the rationality that infuses science can be a liberatory force. This is not to be oblivious to the perils that science has produced for us, though the perils are largely attributable to the political, military and economic context in which science functions rather than the science itself. We all remember the phrase that Eisenhower gave us when he talked of ‘the military-industrial complex’; we forget he also warned us at the same time of ‘the scientific-technological élite’. What we do not need in order to face these challenges is the obfuscating fog of weird epistemologies. The importance of Nanda’s book also lies in its fog-lifting.

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