For the love of reason

famous philosophersWhatever the critics may say, we Sri Lankans are approaching a decisive juncture in our history as a nation. Evidence suggests that we are poised for economic prosperity on a scale we’ve never seen before. We are rapidly reaching that stage where, no matter what internal or external turbulences we may face, we would never look back again except as a developed economy whose citizens enjoy a high physical quality of life (PQLI).

Our road to prosperity could also encompass what we could call an “intellectual emancipation”. By which we mean an awakening of intellectual spirit based on reason and a love of understanding the world as it is, on par with the west and the “new far east” (i.e. China). Without such an awakening of spirit, its unlikely we’d ever see eye to eye with those very societies that inspired us to improve our lot in the first place. We are not speaking here about us morphing into a sort of “Kalu Sudda” Version 2.0, who speaks a kind of Queen’s English. Rather, we could consider uplifting our “education system” (by which we mean not only classroom lessons, but also other key streams of learning such as parenting) to instill the basics of secular reason and freethinking in our children.

One might ask, “Do we really need to change the intellectual outlook in Sri Lanka? After all we’ve got a rich cultural heritage of over 2500 years that helps us in our intellectual development. What evidence is there to show that we lack the right philosophical outlook to navigate through the modern world? After all we study “western” science at school, and we study engineering, management and medicine at university. We have Buddhism and other Judeo-Christian religions that serve as our moral compass. What more must we want?”

Let us address this question by sharing a few commonplace examples of social phenomena prevalent in our country that reek of intellectual underdevelopment.

1. Consider the Marriage Proposals section in the Sunday newspapers (which incidentally covers several broadsheets of classified adverts in a paper like the Observer). Here’s a sample: “Father (executive grade) with assets over LKR 30 Million seeks suitable partner for daughter. Govi/Sinhala/Buddhist, 5” 4’ pleasant and young looking [:-)]. Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1 [a zodiacal planetary position at birth, for those who aren’t familiar]. Seeks handsome businessmen son of similar cast. Apply with Horoscope.”

The reference to the horoscope “Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1” (an absolute fiction) and a cast (!) is bad enough, but not so bad as there being a Sri Lankan father who would like to palm-off his (albeit plain-faced) daughter to a greedy opportunist. Provided his horoscope and cast is compatible, of course. This father is reminiscent of Walter Bray in Nicholas Nickleby, the very antithesis of a loving dad.

2. Consider a random Buddhist sermon. You’d never hear a more eloquently presented but philosophically unsophisticated discourse as the average Poya Day sermon, which is at best a polite exposition of the canon to underline commonsense ethical habits (like respecting one’s parents) to little children. At its worst, it is a discourse full of “Yakkas” [Devils] and portents for disaster, which could only be circumvented by providing regular “Dane” [Alms] to the temple and by stopping the consumption of fish and meat. Moreover, an ethical conundrum for a monk, which merits a sermon, is for example the wearing of slippers by children when monks are around. Apparently the demerit acquired by this symbolic sin against the clergy is significant enough for rebirth in an unsavory world (“narakadiya”).

Buddhism in its core essence – i.e. the endless continuity of life through rebirth (sansaric journey), as a direct outcome of Karma, and the need for escape from this (apparently) unsavory birth/death cycle through meditation and the achievement of higher mental states – is scientifically unverifiable. However, there are many interesting ideas in Buddhism such as transcendence through reason (vipassina bhavana) or a soulless mind (annatha), which could fit in easily into modern analytical philosophy. Many of the moral teachings found in the dammapada are apt for children today, provided the fantastical backdrop is openly acknowledged as metaphorical.

We must be grateful for this rich metaphysical endowment that is Buddhism. The shortcoming is that there is no modern intellectual insight absorbed into the knowledge base of the saasana [clergy], resulting in the standard of the discourse being laughably crude. How can a Buddhist monk afford to be ignorant of the basics of modern philosophy of mind, psychology or science? Buddhism is all about the mind and our phenomenal world, after all. The “cheap” conversion of the Buddhist philosophical tradition into a “bakthi religion” due to the isolation of the clergy from advances in empirical knowledge is indeed a pity. Many monks have fallen, through sheer ignorance, into the trap of being petty moral dictators of congregations even more ignorant than themselves.

3. Consider the number of “systems of medicine” flowering in Sri Lanka, ranging from Homeopathy to Acupuncture. We are taught in medical school that there is only one system of medicine: the one that is based on evidence of efficacy through double-blind clinical trial. And yet all one has to do is drive around Colombo and read the boards of the quacks, or travel to the provinces to be treated by “Welding Vedas” [welding doctors J] who heal broken bones, or consult those physicians with smoking pots who invoke the spirits to cure cancer, to see that the knowledge that there is “only one system of medicine” (i.e. empirical medicine) is largely absent in Sri Lanka. All these quacks operate at a great cost to their patients, both financially and physiologically.

We suggest that behind these three social phenomena lies a deep-seated irrationality, which, leave aside science, is not even rooted in respectable historical tradition. In this day and age we cannot excuse these practices as harmless examples of “divergent opinion” in democratic society. Divergent opinion is, for example, the decision made by an expectant mother to abort a two week old fetus due to economic hardship, or to have the child and hand it over for suitable adoption. Or, divergent opinion could even be the belief in a personal god in a socially harmless fashion, where you engage in daily prayer to Buddha/Jesus/Mohammed/Vishnu/Skanda to improve your wellbeing, as opposed to being an atheist who shuns prayer and “takes life as it comes”. But this is not the case with the three examples we sighted earlier; they represent socially harmful ideology in a modern global context. And there is plenty more nonsense of the same class prevalent in our country ranging from gross misconceptions about the intellectual capabilities of women, to crafty politicians brazenly campaigning for ethnic/tribal interests whilst overlooking the greater good of the country.

At the heart of this irrational and socially harmful conduct is the absence of an early training in freethinking, akin to that which the enlightenment philosophers taught in the west. Whilst even little children in Sri Lanka know that the west had a few great scientists like Newton or Darwin, they seem to lack that greater understanding that both moral and intellectual enlightenment happened over the entire course of world history, with seminal ideas being contributed by a vast number of western thinkers worthy of study in eastern schools. Also, the ideas of Newton and Darwin are taught in a kind of intellectual vacuum in Sri Lanka, as though we aught to follow their laws in a narrow, “engineering” sense. The business of molding a broader outlook to the world is left to “cultural Buddhism” (or cultural Christianity or Islam), where a framework of rules based on inherited mythology guide our ethical and intellectual conduct, sans the benefit of evidence for efficacy.

It is noteworthy that many years ago, E.W. Adikaram (a pupil of that great oriental philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) saw this weakness in Buddhist cultural practice in Sri Lanka and attempted to uplift the intellectual standard of Buddhist discourse by squaring it with science and common sense.

We don’t see this sort of social reformist at work today, or else there won’t be so many Poya day sermons that demand a cessation to the consumption of all animal flesh under any circumstance whatsoever. All evidence is that a prawn for example, lacks the necessary sophistication in its nervous system to perceive a subjective world like higher mammals/apes do. Besides, we humans have evolved with a taste and bodily needs for “meat”, and the ethical problem of not infringing upon the wellbeing of other (possibly) conscious creatures is a tough one to solve. A viable long-term answer would be something of the nature of affordable commercially cultured animal tissue fit for consumption, which has all the subjective and nutritional properties of meat, but lacks a functioning nervous system. In the meantime, reasonable stopgaps include humane slaughter, consumption of non-mammalian flesh such as fish or shellfish, consumption of eggs (the average egg in the store lacks any tangible nervous tissue and is for all practical purposes “dead”). In a country like Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a balanced vegetarian diet is unaffordable for most families. Their children would become physically and mentally stunted if they “went veggie”. The clergy need to take into consideration these facts before they preach.

Not to meander from our main topic, it is not just the Buddha or Jesus, or even Newton and Darwin, whose ideas are worthy of study. The worldviews of folks like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, William James, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, T.H. Huxley, Johann W. von Goethe, Charles Sanders Peirce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Allen Turing, Jerry Fodor, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran or Thomas Metzinger (to name a few) could all be absorbed into the curriculum of our sciences and social sciences. Their free and open spirit has helped shape our modern world. We mustn’t let young adults walk away from school thinking, “we know far more than those western hooligans who can only make love and smoke pot”.

We don’t live in a perfect world, and as such many of the issues stemming from the absence of reason in early mental training, are on the rise in western nations themselves. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the southern United States is an example of this social degradation. However, if we are going to deny an attempt to straighten out this significant kink in the education of our own children in Sri Lanka by sighting these lapses in other countries, we then are on track to becoming a wealthy but intellectually and spiritually underdeveloped nation.

So here is our plea. It is not governments that must respond, but parents and teachers from all corners of society. Our next generation must get as intellectually agile as our brethren in the west. Its time we threw out our historical garbage when we deal with our children, like astrology, faith healers and hells. Instead, we could teach our children to appreciate the external world in its raw sense, and discuss morals issues that are of practical benefit, in a strictly non-judgmental fashion. We as a nation are healthy, and rapidly becoming wealthy. Its time to get wise 🙂 Let us part with this apt quote:

Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.” – John Locke, 1632 – 1704

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