The Higher Superstition: Newsletter #30

The prime minister of India visited the Indian Institute of Science last week. I am sure the visit was planned a long time ago, but it came at a good time, since there's been a lot of controversy recently about the current government's backing of ancient Indian spacecraft and other fancies. My Facebook feed was filled with photographs of students protesting his visit, holding placards that extolled the virtues of scientific temper and of reason winning over superstition.

There's something quaint about the protestors, almost a throwback to Victorian ideas about scientific progress and an equally Victorian disdain for Indian intellectual and scientific traditions. Meanwhile, the current government has accelerated it's predecessors practice of handing over lands and subsidies to large corporations while cutting funds for social programs. All in the name of development, which is a greater superstition than any belief in ancient space travel.

Let me set that aside, since we don't need yet another critique of neoliberal development models. I am also not that interested in the debate between faith and reason; it's another topic that's been done to death. I am more interested in the dividing line between faith and superstition, of deeply held beliefs that have value and those that are counterproductive.

It's instructive to look at beliefs that are at the cusp between faith and superstition. Consider the quest for a unified account of all physical forces, or what's called the ultimate theory. It's an article of faith that's held sway for almost a century now - a single set of equations with an elegant logic that describe all known forces. For good reasons: that belief led to some of the greatest advances in physics and has brought us to the doorstep of full unification.

Unfortunately, the last thirty years have been rough for the true believers. No fundamental progress has been made despite the efforts of the smartest people on earth. Faith might be turning into superstition. Only the true believers remain; calculating young people are going to fields with more money and prospects such as computer science or biology. At some point, the very quest will be threatened; the very idea of a unified theory might start appearing to be a superstition; not because it's seen as wrong but because it's not even wrong.

What's a superstition after all? It's a believers article of faith that's an embarrassment to an outsider. Belief in god is not a superstition to an atheist, it's a false belief; something to be resisted. In other words, it's a substantial claim that happens to be false if you are a non-believer. Wars are fought over competing religious ideologies. Serious stuff. Belief in a flat earth or angels dancing on the tip of a pin are superstitions; they aren't beliefs worth dignifying with any resistance. An adult who believes in Santa Claus is an object of ridicule, not hatred.

Coming back to the protestors at the Indian Institute of Science; they aren't saying that ancient Indian science is false. No one has read the texts to decide the truth one way or the other. Instead, they longer inhabit a mental universe in which those intellectual traditions have any value whatsoever. What they're really saying is that they're embarrassed by Vedic astronautics.

That's the crux of the problem: you have elites who're more than happy with their faith in development and progress and embarrassed at their countrymen who occupy an entirely different mind space altogether. It's a classic "clash of civilizations" problem.