TRUTH IS GOD Special Feature     By   Dr. B. M. Hegde  

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 forever.

"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.

Intercessory prayer

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.

An unforgettable incident

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 for free!

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 work."

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 measurements.

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 to science.


Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Deemed University)