In the last semester, I took up the responsibility to teach a course on data analysis and my classes were scheduled on Thursdays. On one such Thursday, as I headed to the lecture theatre, I was stopped by two fine gentlemen representing a religious group that maintains a stall right at the entrance of my university. They offered me a free copy of their holy book with the kindest lilt. I was equally polite when I responded “thanks … but I prefer reading non-fiction”, and walked off with a smile. Now I grant that it isn’t always necessarily nice to decline kind offers, but in my defence, I was being totally honest and sincere – I really do not have a taste for fiction.
This brutal honesty is a direct consequence of the scientific conditioning I have received as a graduate student. Being the kind of academic that relies on experimentation to uncover hidden realities, I find it deeply insulting – the thought that I could be “saved” if I accepted, without questioning, the beliefs of self-professed “witnesses” of a celestial entity that consciously chooses to remain unobserved. If anything, I am even sceptical of the accounts of real eyewitnesses that appear in court-rooms, for the volume of scientific evidence for their unreliability. Bertrand Russell was once asked how he would respond to God if the latter appeared after his death, and demanded to know why he (Russell) failed to be a believer when he was alive. “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence”, was Russell’s reply. To believers who think that these standards of, what is counted as scientific evidence, are quixotic, I am tempted to ask what standards they would prefer for any medication that is clinically prescribed to them if they were to fall sick (God forbid!).
Of course, to the extent that direct observation is counted as evidence, I do not undermine the power of a revelation. The idea of “seek and you shall find” has worked for many explorers of truth. Isaac Newton’s thought experiments revealed to him, the law of gravity and Sir Arthur Eddington’s carefully designed experiments that involved a solar eclipse, revealed the truthfulness of Albert Einstein’s space-time curvature (relativity). When scientists saw evidence, through direct observation, against their previously held belief that the sun goes around the earth, they converted. Clearly, to the scientist, the sheer delight of knowledge of the truth outweighs the realisation of having been previously wrong. In the aggregate therefore, to me, the most important prerequisite to be worthy of a true revelation is the willingness to convert – to give up prior beliefs in favour of those supported by evidence. It is therefore, a scientist, who has a profound appreciation of a revelation in its truest sense.
Revelation through direct observation mostly remains a luxury. Sir Eddington’s experiment (mentioned earlier) was designed precisely because direct observation wasn’t possible without a solar eclipse. The truth is, we all experiment to infer things that cannot be directly observed. Because of this, the art of experimentation is more universal than one would imagine and remains timeless for us humans. Pythagoras experimented with his principles of harmony, leading to so many possibilities for musical instruments that have evolved into those we know of today; we experiment with our cooking, through which, new possibilities for dishes reveal themselves to us. It is now fitting for me to talk of that experiment which challenges my disbelief in the divine.
The Hindu Goddess of art, knowledge, and wisdom, called Saraswati, it is believed, blesses us when we engage in the act of learning. One is tempted to infer therefore, that many scientists are blessed – but even here scientists are likely to ask for evidence. Very rarely enough, one confronts talent beyond measure – one that exists, and yet, cannot be explained in the natural realm. The young Indian classical vocalist Samadipta Mukherjee effortlessly exercises her vocal cords in ways that will match many greats who have ever engaged in any form of vocal rendition. This is just the beginning – through her experimentation, she transcends the boundaries of Indian classical music and ventures into Western classical by letting her vocal cords flirt with the most complex compositions from the greats like Bach and Mozart, thanks to her comfort level with paltas (from her Indian classical vocal training). Even the renowned singer, Lata Mangeshkar (recipient of the Bharat Ratna – the highest civilian award of India) has publicly appreciated her for her ability to sing complex western compositions in Indian musical-notation.
Although completely in a league of her own, she is very much human – her interests include painting, stitching, and writing short stories. She is also into yoga and takes interest in badminton. Being the curious child that she was, she experimented frequently, seeing which, her guru (vocal-instructor) encouraged her to approach her music lessons for herself through her own understanding instead of blindly following them. She has grown up listening to Jagjit Singh – the first name an Indian is likely to think of in relation to ghazal singing (a form of vocal-rendition that emphasizes on the poetry). She also loves the experimental nature of the compositions of the trio Shankar-Eshaan-Loy, who performed in Brisbane last year.
After having interacted with her about many things (including one of her favourite ragas – Bhairavi), I find myself tempted to believe the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s story that he got his ideas from Goddess Namagiri who proposed mathematical formulae to him in his visions of her. I am still not sure if I have truly converted as yet, but if Samadipta’s talent (in addition to her humility, genuineness, and simplicity in deportment) doesn’t count as evidence of divine blessing, then I do not know what will!
Subrato Banerjee (Behavioural scientist), Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Queensland University of Technology
Views expressed are personal
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius