God, Wonder, Science

The old cliché is “God is dead … And we have killed him”. When this statement was first uttered by Nietzsche’s Madman more than a century ago, I do not think that it was entirely depressing (even though the philosopher himself might have thought otherwise); perhaps because deep down people must have felt it was time to let the idea (of God) go. The zeitgeist had definitely changed direction. People still had their sense of Wonder intact and that was the important thing. After all, was this not what God was, for our forbearers? Did the ‘Modern era’ explanation that it was refraction that caused rainbows, and not the hand of God, make it any less wonderful (or beautiful)? Did the realisation that the limbs on our torsos were configured – over hundreds of generations – from the appendages of an ape, not clay, make it any less wonderful? I do not think so. People merely killed the literal idea of an actual entity, floating in the sky, but not its ‘divine essence’. We allegedly killed God. What were actually killed were the multiple customs, rituals and traditions of worship; what was battered was the once inscrutable power of Religion. We simply substituted God with Science. The real deity was (always) Wonder. And it was alive and kicking.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a cab when a bolt of lightning flashed across the dark skies overhead. The cab driver, in a moment of sensual appreciation, remarked about how beautiful it was. He then turned to me and asked me, rather shyly, about how it was created. This struck me as something quite profound. In a way, I’d always foolishly assumed that everyone knew how the phenomenon was brought about. I proceeded to tell him about oppositely charged ions and how a lightning strike is ignited because of them meeting somewhere between heaven and earth. He was impressed and astonished by my explanation; perhaps slightly incredulous that such things as ions existed in the world. The conversation also amazed me in turn. For one, I could not imagine that Modern human beings using cell phones, driving cars (like our friend) were using these things as mere tools or implements (much like the hoe and plough, a thousand years ago) to survive on the earth. I could not imagine that people did not know how devices or tools worked but only how to use them. They did not need to understand the mechanics, theoretical principles and scientific basis for the tools/devices. It was a rather quotidian revelation but it made me pause and reconsider the society around me.

The other personal reflection that I took back from the conversation was how my scientific explanation about lightning and ions did not inspire any sort of out-and-out resentment from the man. I was half expecting him to protest against the ideas I was pushing; particularly because I was doing so in a very austere way, testing the man by relegating the responsibility of God in such natural phenomenon. The results from the test were optimistic. I did not have the opportunity to pursue the matter further, it could have led to interesting situations. This new revelation about lightning was not a bad thing for our friend. It added to his knowledge system (not destroyed it). God and Science did not, it would seem, have to be at each other’s throats as we are often led to believe. Neither the militant scientists nor the religious camp it would seem have any sense of Beauty.

In hindsight, I think it is fair to say that Nietzsche’s words were in fact prophecy, not lament. God, during Nietzsche’s time, was in fact very much alive. Today, however, he is no more. We have killed God and this happened just a few decades ago. We have not only murdered God but also defiled his corpse. We have done this by relinquishing the ‘fruits’ of Science (Wonder) to corporate entities like Tesla, Google, Apple, Facebook among others. We have in part been guilty of the crime by foolishly accepting certain schools of ‘experts’ (like Dawkins and his ilk) to explain Science to us instead of grappling with it ourselves. Up until a few decades ago, we had people who did not view Science simply, or as something bleak, fit only to be harnessed for corporate profiting. People like Sagan, Feynman, Oppenheimer saw Science as something not only liberating but as vital as the air we breathe; it was something that could still be used for a lot of good in spite of the terrible pains it had inflicted during Wartime. These people were, in my opinion, the last prophets of God. They did not lose their appreciation for Beauty at any stage in their quest for answers. Perhaps (I wish to be a little controversial) it was because they were usually cosmologists and mathematicians not biologists. One cannot be as arrogant, I suppose, when one’s interests are strewn across the vast Universe and not located inside a Petri dish. Biologist friends will forgive my little barb, I hope.

The iPhone is a product of Science but the initial wonder it inspires (and there is wonder) dissipates within a few days of purchase. Why does that happen? It is one of the devices that forms part of what we call Technology, the utilitarian arm of Science. The device does not need to be understood, the pleasure it gives us can be as a toy, tool or torch. I am not arguing for complete schematics for products with their blueprints and design charts to be made available (though that might not be a bad thing actually) and Technology has definitely made our world a better place but not all the time. Corporations say their technology (they will spend billions to ensure that it is always theirs) has given us a brighter future to look forward to. Not when Facebook has become the de facto Internet for a vast number of people and regulates views wilfully, not when JSTOR and private universities hold information for ransom or when Amazon decides what we should wear and read according to shopping ‘seasons’.

For most of the last century, governments were the most significant advocates for Science as Philosophy. This extended well beyond university campuses. It became the zeitgeist of the 20th century. The Indian Constitution also bears this fossilised spirit: “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” (Section V). What has happened to that wonderful goal? Today, governments it would seem no longer want a scientific society. In fact, they seem hell-bent on waging war against Science, pushing Creationism and stupid “gau” myths into people’s heads actively. They do not, oddly enough, have a problem with certain Technology because it is ‘useful’ and can be used to generate massive profits for Big Business. They favour the commercialisation of Science, not its liberating spirit.

Remember when we actually had to learn some coding in order to work a computer or to ‘surf the Internet’? That often laborious experience gave us a way of looking at the world which seems to have gone extinct or has become quite selective. As a child that task gave me a sense of enormous satisfaction – like the knowledge that the trees made up the woods, that ones and zeroes somehow (amazingly) made up Cyberspace. Much like coming to terms with the idea that atoms constitute all matter around us, it imbued my young mind with a sense of moksha. Personally, I feel it is something you carry with you, your whole life.

Craving for technological advancements without comprehension is dangerous and our modern-day heroes, Assange and Snowden, have shown this up time and again. Perhaps the activist group Anonymous should start teaching everyone coding instead of personally hacking databases. That education might actually be the most radical of actions. Internet martyr, Aaron Swartz once said, “It’s not OK not to understand the Internet anymore”. He was absolutely right. We need to extend his wise belief into the wider realm of Science as well.

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Avner Pariat Written by:

Avner Pariat is a poet and chronicler of Khasi Jaintia Hills.

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