Limits of science
|Any intolerance is the beginning of terrorism and
"scientific intolerance" is one such. Scientific terrorism
could be more lethal than the present day political terrorism.
If allowed to go beyond control it could destroy mankind
"Science becomes dangerous only when it imagines
that it has reached its goal."
— George Bernard Shaw in Doctor's Dilemma
THAT SCIENCE and scientific outlook have taken
mankind forwards in the last one hundred odd years is the tall claim
that scientists make. What provoked me to write this piece is that
little wonderful book Limits of Science by a great scientist
and Nobel laureate, Sir Peter Medawar. Anyone who questions the
above rhetoric is dubbed as superstitious or downright illogical, in
addition to being unscientific. Rational thinking is said to be the
key to good living and wisdom. How I wish this were that simple!
Rationality, perforce, has to have its limitations. Rational
thinking is based on the inputs from five senses and possibly some
degree of "knowledge" derived from one's experience. All these do
not come in lumpsums but in bits and pieces. Pascal was the first to
proclaim that there are two important aspects of man's life that are
vital to his actions. The first is to exclude reason in his
dealings; and the second is to believe that there is nothing beyond
reason. Going back hundreds of years, this thinker could have
foreseen the truth of his statement despite the fact that the
present scientific advances that we swear by have not existed then.
He is not far off the mark even today.
Rational thinking and scientific outlook have
enormous limitations. When you look beyond reason you get an insight
into Nature's functioning better. Nature has its reasons always, but
reason cannot explore them many a time. How else can one feel love,
hatred, jealousy, etc., in life? None of them can be measured in
scientific terms. One could experience love but not be able to see
it or measure its dimensions. To deny the effects of intense feeling
of love for one's beloved on oneself is to deny the truth. If
"science is measurement and measurement is science" as defined by
Marie Curie, love as an emotion does not exist at all. No one has
seen the wind, but when the trees dance and bend the wind is passing
by, wrote the poet.
Similarly there are a lot of things that one can
only feel but not be able to see and measure. The problem with
mankind today is intolerance for others' views. Rousseau was
despised by many of his peers for his strong and unconventional
views. His life was in danger. Voltaire came to his rescue and asked
Rousseau to stay with him to avoid any harm. Eventually when
Rousseau did come, Voltaire told him "I do not agree with a single
word of what you say, but I shall defend to my last breath your
right to say what you want to say."
That is the kind of tolerance that would take
mankind forward. Science, if anything, has taken mankind backwards,
if one critically looks at it philosophically, pushing him to the
brink of self-destruction. Is not the threat of nuclear war from the
terrorists based on scientific data? Is not the anthrax fever in the
U.S. born out of complicated scientific research to get resistant
germs to fight wars? Is not the ever-present threat of chemical
warfare based on science?
Recently, when doctors went on strike in Israel the
death rate and morbidity fell significantly there; only to bounce
back to the original levels when there was peace between the
striking doctors and the government. It is to be noted that
morticians, whose business all but disappeared when the strike was
on, brokered peace between the striking doctors and the government!
The so-called evidence-based medicine, when looked at carefully, is
only evidence burdened and makes life that much difficult for both
the doctor and the patient. This is because scientific evidence
gathered need not have a linear relationship to what happens inside
the human body. The latter is run by the human mind, which is
scientifically unfathomable. There are so many imponderables in
Nature that one cannot answer all the questions in Nature with the
help of science alone. There are many things outside the realm of
science, which are beyond the explanatory capacity of science.
Any intolerance is the beginning of terrorism and
"scientific intolerance" is one such. Scientific terrorism could be
more lethal than the present day political terrorism. If allowed to
go beyond control it could destroy mankind forever. Let us look at
some happenings that science will never be able to gauge.
Years ago Leonard Leibovici showed that "remote,
retroactive, intercessory prayer could do wonders for patient
recovery in hospitals." A positivist that he was, he went a step
further to urge doctors to include prayer in their armamentarium. He
also gave evidence to show how scurvy could be controlled hundreds
of years before the discovery of vitamin C, as shown by James Lind.
The prayer theme was taken to great scientific
heights by a recent study in an American University hospital in a
well controlled, randomised, triple-blind (the patient, his treating
doctor and the relatives are kept in the dark) prospective study of
heart attack patients. The prayed for group had very significant
fall in all parameters of the illness in a coronary care set-up.
Even death rate was significantly lower in the prayed for group.
This was replicated in patients who had severe infective fevers in
another milestone study.
Konotey-Ahulu documented some unexplainable deaths
in his hospital in Africa (very thoroughly studied even after
post-mortem) where medical science could not give any clue to the
happenings. Recitation of the rosary, which derives its origin from
the Tibetan monks, brought to the West via Arabs and other
crusaders, and the yoga mantras that are well known in India, have
been elegantly shown to reduce the rate of breathing which had
significant improvement in the patients' illness. Yogic breathing is
shown to lower elevated blood pressure, and many other cardiac
parameters like aortic pressure, pulmonary artery pressure, the
ventricular ejection fraction, etc., in those with severe heart
failure. Tranquillity of mind that it bestows is immeasurable and is
the added bonus.
Studies in America have shown that the Chinese and
Japanese Americans had significantly higher death rates on the 4th
of every month. This was not seen in the White races. The Chinese
and the Japanese believe the 4th to be very inauspicious day of the
month. Another milestone study in London showed that Friday the 13th
was definitely dangerous for at least 50 per cent of the Britons who
dared to go out and work that day. The other 50 per cent stayed home
on those days, the real superstitious. The conclusion of the study
was that Friday the 13th is definitely bad for at least one half of
the British population.
If one is a conscientious medical scientist and
observes patients very closely one would discover many such
inexplicable feats happening almost every day in a busy clinical
setting. I call them as "butterfly effects", the phrase having been
borrowed from Edward Lorenz of weather predictions fame. It was only
after Lorenz got all the bouquets for his discovery of the method of
predicting the weather that he discovered, to his surprise, that
accurate prediction of the weather is impossible. He then propounded
the butterfly effect. If one wants to know the limitations of
science one should study human beings in distress, where butterfly
effect is the rule rather than an exception. Of course, doctors have
been predicting the unpredictable all along.
One unforgettable incident comes to mind. One of my
patients, whom I had known in my professional capacity for a very
long time, was the priest of a very famous temple in the Malanad
area of Karnataka. He was an authentic scholar of ancient Indian
wisdom and was venerated by his people. He managed his temple
affairs with total dedication. His temple was an example for others.
When this incident occurred he was well past ninety years of age but
was very alert mentally as well as physically. His wife, who was in
her 80s, was admitted under my care for a heart attack (inferior
infarct, a milder variety with good outcome). When she was
progressively improving on the third day he made a strange request
to me. He wanted her to be discharged that very day, as he was sure
that she would meet her Maker the following day at 12 noon or so. I
was nonplussed but, knowing him as I did to be very authentic, I was
in a "scientific" dilemma. Ultimately he took her against medical
advice. His argument was that she should not die in a hospital.
I was shocked to learn from their son that the
patient was in good shape at 11.55 a.m. She drank some water and
died without any distress at 12 noon. I could not bring myself to
believe this whole episode until after a year the old man wanted to
see me to thank me. He told me that he was going to die on a
particular day at a given time and wanted all his children and
grandchildren around him at that time. This prediction made me
curious. He did keep his word and the end came as he had predicted.
He had all his people around and slept on a banana leaf on the floor
minutes before breathing his last! I have no scientific explanation
even now. He was a great astrologer himself and had done very deep
study of all the great works in that area. He had a reputation of
being an authentic astrologer, in addition to his philanthropy — all
This single episode is only one example of the many
paranormal phenomena that one observes in day-to-day medical
practice. Konotey-Ahulu's episodes are stranger than mine are,
though. Maybe they are culturally different. He was practising in
Africa. I know what Erik the Genius would say. Since he is an
intellectual and a know-all scientist, he would label all our
experiences as anecdotal. Of course, they are anecdotal, but it is
anecdotes that make us wiser and not arrogant. Any knotty problem,
when looked at more carefully, becomes more complicated. Great minds
of yore knew this very well. Albert Einstein, during his last days,
wrote: "I do not believe that this world is a wonder; I think it is
a wonderful wonder." Stephen Hawking wrote: "I do not believe that
there is God; if there is one I do not want him to interfere with my
Wisdom is not just the sum total of the inputs from
our five senses. There is more to it than what meets the eye. The
effects of prayer on illness, the placebo-doctor effect on the human
immune system, the "will to live" feeling that keeps people going
despite intolerable pain and disability, and many other such
scientifically proven methods of giving relief to the suffering make
one believe in the possibilities beyond hypothesis refutation and
Science, like any other human activity, should have
its limitations. It would be foolhardy to believe that science is
the be all and end all of human wisdom. Very far from it. What we
know is probably a very small fraction of what there is to know.
This is the best education scientifically given in school. Live and
let live. While one could have one's views he should be tolerant of
others' views as well and be ready to examine them without any
prejudices. That would be progress and that alone can rid this world
of all kinds of terrorism. One who understands science very well
alone realises the depth of his ignorance. The genuine rationalist
is one who has understood the limitations of reason. Positive
sciences, at best, could answer questions like "how" or "how much."
Positive sciences will never be able to answer the question "why".
The answer to the question "why" needs the knowledge of the limits
Manipal Academy of Higher
Education (Deemed University)