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Science, Global Consciousness And The Self

Yash Pal
National Research Professor, New-Delhi, India

Genetic Eng.

I plan to share with you, howsoever inadequately, my personal universe wherein I have sought relatively conflict-free, but ecologically related, spaces for science, consciousness (including my definition of global consciousness) and the self. To be frank, I feel it is a rather risky thing to attempt. But then at this time in my life I can afford to be silly. The worst that can happen to me is that my 'self' would come out a little bruised. But I also know that such bruises heal easily in spaces in which my 'self' is embedded. In any case in the scheme of relationships I will attempt to explore there is much flexibility and I might only learn from your criticism, even your ridicule.... I know this is hell of an introduction to a presentation before a group of distinguished philosophers and scientists, but I felt that the least I can do is to warn you. So here it is.

It is generally believed that we are the first self-conscious species on this planet. No one has asked the turtles, penguins or dolphins whether they are self-conscious, or whether, in their view, we are. But we have to start with some assumptions and they might as well be in our favour. After all we seldom find selected members of any other species collecting from different parts of the world only to do anything like what we are attempting here. We will have to grant that we are a self-aware species, perhaps excessively and arrogantly so

I suddenly realise that I am drifting into a rather fruitless excursion into the basics of a non-topic. It would be best if at this point I attempt an analysis of my own awareness as it has developed with time. I grew up in an Arya Samaj home. It was an act of faith that all wisdom was encapsulated in the four Vedas. While Upanishads were just commentaries on Vedas, the Pauranas were mostly lies. While Rama was a just and noble human being and there were many moral and ethical lessons to be learnt from the Ramayana and Nahahharata, and of course the Gita, all miracles there in were corruptions introduced by unscrupulous persons later. Of course the ancient Aryans knew everything there was to know, and we would too, if we could read, understand and master the Vedas. We had all memorised the ten rules, NIYAMS, of Arya Samaj and one of the injunctions was that one of the missions of life should be to make everyone on this earth an Arya.

There is no question that this teaching had a strong influence on my young mind. We were sure that we were much more scientific than the Sanatani's or for that matter all those belonging to other religions. We were strongly against caste system, or idol worship. There was just one God and the stories about a multitude of gods were created by ignorant persons for their own purpose. In one sense the past I had inherited was made very simple and rational, indeed rational to the point of being dry and dull with no room for uncertainties and ambiguities. It was easy to develop into a self righteous, insufferable, fool, deprived of all insights where analogies are the only paths to comprehension--analogies, fictitious stories or myths. As non- believers in the caste system we had already given up using our surname (this was easy because use of surname was not a very common practice in the Punjab of that time). But when I was thirteen and had to change my school, I took on the surname of Arya, with all its connotations. That was the name under which I passed my matriculation examination. But I was growing up. At the age of 15, when I joined college, the year was 1942 and so, naturally, I took on the surname of Bharati, read a lot, joined the students movement, first the Students Federation and soon the Students Congress. I do not want to continue with these colourless memories of early youth because they are no different from those of most other people. The point I would like to bring home is that our consciousness has a large component which is strongly influenced by our intellectual understanding in addition to personal experiences. [Incidentally, I also gave up the surname of Bharati after a couple of years, but could not bring myself to take on our zeal surname of Bhutani, even after every one else in my family, including my parents, started using this name; it was the requirement for a modern person to have a surname. In one sense I too acquired one after I started publishing scientific papers. People started calling me Pal and my wife became Mrs. Pal, and my children also have a surname: Pal of course!]

It would be wrong to say that my Arya Samajist childhood is completely wiped out. I like the sounds of selected Vedic Mantras chanted in a particular way and the smell of Samagri used during Yagyas. I still feel uncomfortable visiting a conventional Hindu temple, largely because I am not familiar with the ritual and feel rather stupid going through motions which I don't quite understand or believe in. On the other hand I am impressed with, and am deeply touched by the emanations I receive while watching a faithful going through various rituals. I no longer have the old Arya Samajist's urge for Khandan, or saying that what they do is wrong or meaningless, because more often than not I can clearly see the meaning they seem to derive for themselves.

I do think that in my life I have done some serious science. Not so great perhaps, but serious and interesting nevertheless. That has given me intellectual joy. Even more, it has opened for me the doors of a lot of fascinating science done by others, many of them far more gifted than me. It has also opened avenues through which one may begin to address questions which touch the realm of things spiritual. Yes, I do believe that there is something deeply spiritual in the intimate operational manuals of Nature, in the beautiful and logical connections between the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds, in the connections between the living and the non-living and being able to understand the stars, galaxies and the universe, not completely but to a large extent.

There is much more to science than the intricacies of science itself. The age old questions such as 'who am I ; how am I related; what is the meaning of it all' are beginning to get some beautiful answers which are not based on revelation or denominational sources. The fact that I can trace my ancestry, though somewhat imperfectly, through evolution to the first cell on this planet almost four billion years ago, has a lot of meaning. That the ancestry of all living things on this planet can perhaps be traced to the very same cell has a deeper meaning. Finding innumerable examples to prove the fact that longevity of living things depends not so much on confrontation but on co-operation and symbiosis should also, in some sense, influence our personal and social behaviour. In this respect it may be useful to quote from that charming writer and distinguished biologist, Lewis Thomas, where he explains how termites manage to live on wood:

"Termites do not have a mechanism for converting cellulose into carbohydrates. This function is performed by protozoans (single celled eukaryotes) who live in their intestines. In some species the protozoans cannot move by themselves to ingest the wood consumed by the termites. They do this with the help of spiral shaped bacteria (spirochetes) attached to their skin ( perhaps like screws, they can turn and move forward). And there is more. Inside each protozoan, just below the surface, are neat layers of numerous bacteria which contribute the enzymes which digest the wood. Wood is eaten by the termite, located by spirochetes, swallowed by the protozoans and converted into sugar by bacteria".

As Lewis Thomas remarks: "It is as amicably successful a committee as can be found any where in biology". I would like to suggest that a cultural understanding of such like examples, with which biology is replete, has some place in our consciousness, of some relevance to the universe of guidelines which affect the nature of transaction with those perceived as 'others'.

One of the truly joyous moments of my life was to learn, about 35 years ago, that the language of life is written with a few alphabets and this language is the same for all living things. One also finds that the neat tricks Nature has evolved or discovered over millions of years get used again and again in many diverse forms of life. The remarkable happening of life on this planet within five hundred million years of its own origin necessarily commands my reverence. What a unique cosmic event. Perhaps it has been repeated on several other worlds around many other stars. Whether another curious and self-conscious species like us has come into being anywhere else is still uncertain, though quite likely. The search is on, though still at a low key. I wonder if the answer will come when I am still alive.

I could go beyond this planet to the origin of the solar system, the manner in which the sun was formed and generates its life giving energy, to the understandings about the life cycles of stars, billions of them in billions of galaxies. In between would come the exotic, perhaps not so exotic any more, neutron stars and black holes, till the time I begin to talk of the very origin of the universe. And then , becoming aware of my utter insignificance in the large scheme of things, I am also struck by my audacity in trying to comprehend this fantastic universe, and then delighted that a lot of it is actually comprehensible! What a gift Nature has provided to this insignificant creature. Tagore once said something to the effect: "There is a great concern in the scheme of things in nature to give us delighted".

I am told that two thousand years ago there were no more than a hundred million people on this planet. This number may be off by a factor of two, but it is clear that people lived in small groups, separated by large distances from each other. In still earlier times, thousands of years ago, the isolation must have been even greater. Any way we think, it is inevitable that the ways of living, dressing, eating, communing with each other and coping with the environment would have been developed independently by most of these groups. Languages people used had to be different, also the nature of their philosophising. It is not surprising that the world came to have so much social and cultural diversity. Rather it is amazing that the deep philosophical questions asked by various groups have so much commonalty. Such a simple understanding of the human past, much before the dawn of the discipline of history, if embedded in our sub-conscious can, in principle, lead to an easy accommodation with the 'other': rather it should lead to a celebration of the fact that there are relative 'others'. A celebration of the 'other' also implies that the 'other' is recognised, and ,therefore, the 'self' is also preserved and savoured. We have not yet learnt this art: how to enjoy and be comfortable in the middle of diversity without foregoing the being of our own 'self'.

Cosmic Consciousness

Much of what I have said above defines for me what I would like to call Cosmic Consciousness or, sometimes, Global Consciousness. Such a consciousness does not deny me the right to feel that I am O.K., or even that I am the best, that I am on top. However, it does imply that I recognise everyone else's right to feel so. I concede that this is difficult but a transition in that direction is not only desirable but compulsory for a sustainable human existence. In some sense such a consciousness encompasses the ultimate in democracy. It might make us worthy of all the capabilities and power which Science a Technology have brought us and will continue bringing in the future. Unless we develop such perspectives, we are likely to become, in Henry Thoreau's words, "Tools of our tools".

Many of the elements we consider to be part of a culture are imbibed at a very young age. That is how cultures survive. I am told that for all of us, there are certain critical periods of cortexial development during which certain capabilities or processing techniques must be developed and used or else they are switched off or destroyed. I do not know what is the critical period for acquiring long range perspectives. I believe such a period must begin very early and continue thereafter. I feel that a large infusion of such perspectives, including the one I have hinted at, is essential for developing a temper of Global Consciousness.

I do believe that at a basic level this is what Jawahar Lal meant when he stressed the need to develop a scientific temper. Nost people misunderstood him as saying that everyone who learns any science R technology has a scientific temper. For example, I do not believe that countries which have more science and technology necessarily have a higher level of scientific temper, or longer perspective, or global consciousness.

Globalisation and the self

These days the world is caught up in a process of Globalisation. Thanks to the modern means of transport and communication, and the dominance of a few industrialised countries, a process has been let loose through which the economic, social and cultural contours of all countries and societies will become the same. Since the globalisation waves travel only one way, from the few privileged and the strong to all the rest, it is not surprising that the tensions are increasing. It should be realised that the present process of GLOBALISATION is completely anti-thetical to the concept of global consciousness The basic thrust of globalisation is derived from a belief that a large part of the World is only a market for goods and services. ideas and styles of living originating in a few countries who have acquired the necessary prowess through twists of recent history and their internal energy. The way modern communication is organised these days, even the way our education systems are organised, help in this process. The bulk of societies who are being conditioned by a few 'conditioners' appear on the surface to go along with this process while their internal structures automatically get busy creating a strong immunological response. This creates international problems and incidents and, in addition, the affected societies get sick because of their unduly strong immunological apparatus. The fact that such immunologically induced pathologies are widespread in the current world can be seen in a large number of examples within our own country leaving aside what is happening to the old Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Mexico and much of Africa. Needless to say, I do not accept that their is a built in personality trait of all science and technology that make the appearance of such pathological conditions inevitable. Technologies, even the most sophisticated technologies, can be configured in many different ways according to the dominant urges of society, particularly the modern technologies with their flexibility, scale invariance and neutrality towards decentralisation.

A Bit More On Self And Social Immunology

Perhaps I should end this presentation with some additional comments on 'self' and the 'other', and a little more about the role of immunology in social transactions. These comments are more like easy chair reflections than assertions which I would feel comfortable defending. They are presented to encourage a dialogue. Indeed I will offer more questions than answers.

Could 'self' be viewed as a complex, circumscribed by a large but finite number of parameters, characteristics and processes? Or a specific universe of awareness with fuzzy boundaries? A confused collection of memories, a bundle of hypotheses to loosely contain the universe of experience, with a set of filters to modulate, admit or debar perception? Or is it better recognised through a set of theories developed through an urge to make sense of happenings and experiences; and accidental conformation of a new experience with the 'theory' confirms the 'theory'? Are we designed to seek confirmation and disregard, resist or reject dissonance'? There is a sense of comfort when the conflict with our universe of theories is minimal? Pursuing this sense of comfort: is it a tendency built into our genes? Asking questions of this nature, I am forced to pursue analogies from the biological world which would not be viable without, a well developed immune system.

It is clear that without a defence mechanism, or an immune system, an organism, biological or social, is at risk. The existence of a small police force, and an ability to augment it at the time of an attack is essential. But too large a force, or too strong a defence or immunological response can lead to sickness and deconstruction which is difficult to heal. Over- defence is dangerous to the defender.

From this it might appear that all external influences are dangerous because they could disrupt the 'self', directly or through the unreasonable immune response they might induce. This would be an unreasonable extrapolation of the argument. Both, the biological systems and the social systems, include in their make up mechanisms for evolving symbiotic configurations or selectively suppressing the immune response. There are many examples in evolutionary biology where dissimilar organisms discovered, through appropriate modification and adjustment, the advantage of a symbiotic relationship. The problem with such analogies is that we are likely to be misled unless we also keep in mind the time scales involved in such adjustments. Time scales for social evolution may not be as long as in biology, but they are much longer than the time constants with which our technologies, powers, and the range at which these powers can be exercised, are changing. The second half of this century has brought us challenges which are qualitatively different from what we were used to in earlier epochs. I do believe, however, that these challenges are not insurmountable. The ultimate inevitability of global consciousness as the only sustainable ethic for the future makes me a long distance optimist. We might still overcome. Just might.

November, 26, 1996.


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