Thursday, April 19, 2007


One of the most striking parts of The Man Without Qualities is its extended attack on scientific rationality and the enlightenment tradition. I am personally quite hostile to anti-science writings but in this case it is such an extremely subtle and thorough analysis that I couldn't help but nod my head in ascendance. Here is just one passage from many such examples from the book:

"The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic mental by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our most intimate personal decisions are programmed behavior; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and the oral openings at either end of the same tube—such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favor as being impeccably scientific."

Musil is is of course far from being a traditionalist or a proponent of religion but he rightly sees an allurement of the abdication of personal responsibility inherent in the scientific worldview. Being a human being is such an awful burden, and scientific reductionism offers one chance of ridding oneself of the same. Scientific reductionism and its capacity of dehumanisation of human beings is one of the main themes of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck too. The doctor character in a way is one of the forefathers of the Nazi "doctors" and "scientists" who thought they were helping the cause of science oblivious of any moral concerns which they thought were anyway too vague to be bothered with within the realm of science. The evolutionary theory tries to ground morality in the structure of brain (game theory, evolution of co-operation etc) but still the foundations are too shaky to be of much use. Despite the efforts of all these scientists, the explanation of the existence of values in the world of facts still remains highly difficult and even intractable.

Thinking about these things also reminded me of an essay I read some time back by the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, collected in his book Bharat aur Europe: Pratishruti ke Kshetra (India and Europe: Areas of "Mutual Hearings" (Echoes?)). This particular essay was delivered as a lecture in one of the German universities (I think Heidelberg). In it he compares European and Indian culture and criticises the rationalist tradition of the former which he says licenses human being's egotism and breeds isolation while at the same time Indian culture stresses on wholeness with its integration of "atman" and "brahman" (self and the immanent consciousness). He also tries to find a logical link between the horrors of the twentieth century Europe and the enlightenment tradition it espoused for a couple of centuries. I am of course grossly simplifying his arguments but I think he is not alone in thinking on these lines. Many scholars and philosophers have argued similarly, that holocaust or the communist gulags were rationalist projects. In many ways Musil is also arguing the same thing. That's where most of the prophetic power of the book comes from too. (He wrote most of it in the twenties before the Nazis came to power.)

I personally never agreed with this thesis. Science can explain behavior but that doesn't mean the behaviour is justified. To do this would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy -- what is need not mean that it should be. And this is where I found Musil's analysis so enlightening. He says that there are no alternatives to scientific worldview but at the same time we also have to resist all the temptation and consolation that this worldview offers to us. We will have to find a shared space for authentic connection with other human beings and also struggle to find a set of values to live by, within this framework of scientific worldview. Now whether will we ever be able to this or not, that is the difficult question!

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