Rethinking Science and Culture: P.R. Sarkar’s Reconstruction of Science and Society
February 19, 2002 by Sohail Inayatullah
The ninth chapter of Situating Sarkar: Tantra, Macrohistory and Alternative Futures by Sohail Inayatullah proposes alternatives to the Western conceptions of science, data, and consciousness, as well as the roles science plays within society.
Originally published 1999 in Situating Sarkar:Tantra, Macrohistory and Alternative Futures (Maleny and Ananda Nagar, Gurukul Publications, 1999). Published on KurzweilAI.net February 19, 2002.
The ubiquitous dominance of the scientific discourse has traditionally been criticized by humanists, contextualized within a structure of paradigms by Thomas Kuhn,1 and more recently placed within a theory of epistemes–the boundaries of the construction of knowledge–by poststructuralists and writers such as Foucault and interpreters of him, among others, Michael Shapiro.2 In addition, writers like Ashis Nandy3 have attempted to synthesize the many critiques of science focusing their efforts on the politics of the third world, particularly the epistemological implications of the works of Gandhi. What follows here is a short essay that continues this project but attempts to inject an alternative perspective, that of P.R. Sarkar’s, into the “what is science” or the science/culture debate. Shrii Sarkar, we argue, develops a new science of society that is neither solely cyclical (past-oriented) nor linear (present-oriented) and a new science of nature that does not fall into the various modern (pro or anti) science/technology positions. He does not reinscribe the Western model of science, the science of modernity nor does he merely develop a local indigenous science.
SCIENCE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF POLITICS
Traditional theories of science have attempted to place science and thereby knowledge outside of history, culture and language. In this view, the goal of good research is to remove subjectivity. The goal is disinterest and distance from the results of investigation.
This type of research has led critics to argue that science (and its brain-child, legitimate or bastard, technology) is amoral, without conscience. In his Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias, Ashis Nandy criticizes those who wish to place themselves outside of history (the modern liberal scientists and the modern scientific socialist project). Both seek to end history not through individual liberation–as the yogi–but through the search for the perfect society either through the magic of the marketplace (greed leading to growth) or the magic of the communist state or non-state (power leading to justice). Central to both these projects has been the science and technology revolution. In Nandy’s words “the image of the scientist as a slightly seedy natural philosopher and practitioner of an esoteric discipline, and that of the technologist as a humble craftsman or artisan, gradually underwent a change. Both became partners in a new, high paying, heady enterprise called modern science.”4
But the modern scientist did not stop there. “He was to see the idea that while each technological achievement marked the success of modern science, each technological perversion was the responsibility of either the technologist or his political and economic mentors, not that of the scientist.”5
In addition, science and technology constructed the world in which those with access to this worldview created the Other as primitive, as historical forms that need to be developed, to be modernized. This is also linear evolutionary theory with its social analog of developmentalism: Marx or Rostow. Both Edward Said in Orientalism 6 and Frantz Fanon in Black Skins/White Masks 7 have also passionately developed criticisms of this discourse.
Contrasting this has been the view of, among others, Gandhi, who sought to develop a local Indian science. Recently, as well, a great deal of literature has argued for a local knowledge perspective; one in which science is not dominated by Western “universalizing” knowledge practices but one where science is relevant to the local culture. For example, Pakistan has attempted to develop an Islamic economics and science. However, while this indigenization of knowledge is enabling in that it does not attempt to merely mimic the Western model of knowledge, it does lead to situations in which old power structures–the landlords and mullahs/Brahmins–are renewed. Instead of an alternative science of society or a science committed to the empirical, what results are conferences where “inshallah” is repeated after every scientific formula (H2O, God willing)8 or the Vedas are uttered continuously in the hopes of alchemically transforming the physical into the spiritual. Here, while science has now become placed in an alternative cultural site, it has lost its openness to critique and debate; an openness necessary for any creative development. While freed from modernity, this indigenization of knowledge perspective has become frozen in the historical ideational-religious traditions.
Compare this to the New Age paradigm articulated by writers such as Willis Harmon9, Marilyn Ferguson10 and Fritjof Capra.11 This alternative science claims to have reconciled religion, science and values through the rediscovery of ancient spirituality and through the reinterpretation of modern physics. The aim is not toward a local science but a new universal science that is not reductionist; rather it is holistic with truth simultaneously having many levels and at the same time grounded in a Consciousness that exists ontologically prior to the intellectual mind. Central to this reconciliation is the creation of a planetary spiritual civilization that exists outside of the present industrial nation-state Cartesian paradigm. From this New Age view, the indigenization of knowledge, while creative in its anti-Western stance, is but a continuation of a knowledge regime controlled by those who ruled in pre-modern eras, that is, the priests, mullahs, and others whose robes kept them free from moral impurity (and interestingly this is isomorphic to the robe or frock of the scientist who too must be free of values or be free from the contamination of the organisms released in his experiments). From the view of modernity, this indigenization of knowledge is the return of superstition, of the power of local tales, local priests, and backward institutions. Similarly, from the view of the traditional modern scientific discourse the New Age paradigm is merely bad science or at best mediocre metaphysics.
But for Nandy, superstition is not the danger. Local knowledge or New Age knowledge are not the problem. Rather, “modern science has built a structure of near total isolation where human beings–including all their suffering and moral experience–have been objectified as things and processes, to be vivisected, manipulated or corrected.”12 Although modern science claims to be pluralistic, it has become authoritarian; at least in traditional cultures there were a variety of gurus, or perceptions of the real vying for allegiance.
Science then at one time pluralized our view of the universe, of politics and society. In the language of P.R. Sarkar’s, it helped end the domination of the vipras and their ideational worldview and created the vaeshyan sensate worldview, that is, the science and technology revolution that aided in created the modern world.
Gandhi, then, (and others involved in the local knowledge project), as Ashis Nandy argues, comes out as one who attempted to create an alternative science; he rejected the technologism of modernity and the Western categories exported through Orientalism. But how might Gandhi react to the new world of clones, global telecommunications, genetic engineering and space travel? Are they merely the continued tradition of bureaucracy and control or are we on the verge of a new world? How should local and Western science deal with the dramatic restructuring potential of the new technologies (genetic, computer, space) that make our local and universal perspectives problematic. They destroy both worlds and eras?
SARKAR’S SCIENCE OF SOCIETY
P.R. Sarkar tries an alternative, unconventional approach. He does not attempt to support “universal” positive science nor the various forms of local science and technology. Rather Sarkar’s interest is to create a new cosmology which is essentially spiritual but inclusive of the physical and mental. He does not locate action in mere reflection; rather to him life a struggle with the environment and with ideas (history develops through this struggle. Thus social change is material and ideational) and progress comes through the attraction of the Great (thus it is spiritual).
Sarkar begins with a science of society, essentially a science in which there are four basic structures that create our subjectivities: the worker, the warrior, the intellectual, and the accumulator (here radically reinterpreting the classic Indian caste construction). The structures are associated with personality types, classes and with historical eras.
He locates this discussion in a science of society instead of an art in that these structures are evolutionary and thus law-like. Thus these stages are historical. For Sarkar they are not metaphysically deduced. They are part of the science of society. But not science merely in the modern sense of empirically derived. For Sarkar science is defined not by the site of the material, but by causality, by “systematicity,” and by the rational. That is, important in science is not authority or devotion (two ways of knowing the real) but reason and sense-inference. Superstition is when the self is located in the ego, one’s geography, ideology or in “speciesism”; the goal is to move toward a placement that is outside of conventional boundaries–a type of spiritual universalism.
In this definition, the spiritual can become the scientific. It becomes intuitional science, synthetic in nature, while material science is analytic and inference based. Both are necessary. This is different from the Western placement where epistemology was divided into authority (religion), inference (science), logic (philosophy). Sarkar’s goal is to begin a rational intuitional science. The classic Indian episteme, which Sarkar emerges from exists in a unity of discourse; the division of Vico (understanding) and Weber (explanation) do not occur here.13 For Sarkar there are five ways of knowing the real: reason, sense inference, intuition, authority and devotion/love. Each way of knowing the real has its price, so to say; it is only with devotion/love that real progress is possible and contradiction-free. Sarkar can thus arrive at his theories intuitionally and claim that they are scientific in that they are systematic, rational, and have causal links. In addition, his theory of society can be scientific in that from the Indian episteme the social is in harmony and is parallel with the physical and the cosmic. It would be surprising if there were no social laws!14 However, at the same time (and this is the paradox), the universe is not closed, it is not clock-like since Consciousness is emanating new forms of energy and reality. However, the openness of the universe (that there is agency, human choice) only affects the social structure in the long run (following Rupert Sheldrake15 and his morphogenetic memory fields); in the short run it provides inspiration to individuals to transform themselves and then the world about them. Sarkar’s claim to the science discourse again is different from the socialist scientific law or the scientific laws based on modern developmental theory (a la Spencer) in that for Sarkar if is not that he is correct and they are false, that discoveries of the social were based on false consciousness prior to him, but rather that there are different levels of the real, different philosophers are in touch with different levels of reality. The only absolute truth is pure Consciousness; however, that truth cannot be expressed, for when expressed it falls under local influences, that is, culture, technology and history–power.
Finally, insofar as the scientific enterprise exists to improve the conditions of the material and mental worlds, Sarkar’s theory gives new political assets to worker–as well as to the other classes (the oppressor and the oppressed must both liberate themselves from the particular social formation they find themselves in). His theory also more fully explains human history. His social theory reinterprets history allowing previously silenced voices to be heard and allowing hidden structures to emerge (his four fold structure of power). His science is not apolitical, rather it is expressly political (in terms of creating new meanings) in rethinking history and in creating an alternative politics of the future–of the possibilities of change, of governance.
Notice how the view of Sarkar is different from the work of other spiritual groups and their journals, for example, the journal Vedic and Modern Science.16 The goal there is to place intuitional science in empirical science–as a subset of material science–thus attempting to prove that meditation leads to stock markets rising. The politics of this statement (why are stock markets necessarily good, do they meet basic needs?) and its location in liberalism and capitalism is not admitted. Rather each article is followed by the endless academic degrees of its author in an attempt to show legitimacy to the professional scientific community. This journal, instead of reconstructing science and the spiritual, merely attempts to place the spiritual within the empirical discourse, an empirical discourse which is naively believed to be apolitical. Meditation here exists not to re-enchant the world, to see it anew and to recreate our various subjectivities, but rather meditation is needed to succeed in the material, modern world.
However, what emerges from Sarkar’s attempt to re-enchant the material with the spiritual besides new social theory are a range of new theories of evolution (evolution is desire-based not Darwinian mutation-based). One central concept is the postulation of new particles called microvita that are both mind and body, that can be used to spread information throughout the universe, that carry viruses and solve the traditional mind/body dichotomy. They are the emanations of Consciousness. Thus there is structure but there is change–the spiritual does not close the universe, as mentioned above, it guides it.
THEORY, DATA, VALUES AND CONSCIOUSNESS
But our point here is not the veracity of Sarkar’s assertion but the knowledge space which allows him to make it intelligibly. What Sarkar adds to the traditional triangle of theory (ideas), data (matter), and values (humans) is consciousness, not merely as rational self-reflective thought but as presence. While the traditional model centered on data and theory, it is only recent efforts by humanists that include values as such. Thus critics like Nandy argue for values sited in culture, history and language. There is then theory, data, values, and the specific consciousness of the observer in terms of attitude and in terms of spiritual evolution (level of awareness)–vibration. For example, an experiment might yield different results with different scientists as the mind influences the results of the experiment. At the same time, we gain interesting and exemplary forecasts of the future not possible in the anti-science polemic that emerge from efforts to develop local forms of science (although they assert it is not science but the hegemonic Western science that is under criticism). Sarkar can speak both in spiritual and technological language. For him, in the context of global governance and spiritual cooperative socialism, both spirituality and scientific technology can lead to social transformation.
RETHINKING AND RESITUATING THE NATURAL
Take the issue of genetic engineering.17 It is already used to increase the baby “safety rate” (to use technocratic language). This opens up the door for eventually using genetic engineering not for medical reasons, but for individual characteristic enhancement. If one does not enhance one’s child’s characteristics, he or she will be at a disadvantage. Other parents will make use of these new technologies as they develop and are globally diffused. Parents may then ask for enhancements in their child’s physical characteristics and mental ones if possible. In the long run, with physical beauty easily available physical differences may become far more important then obtaining a certain “look” (as created in fashion centers). In fact, the physical in itself may become less important. And as mental qualities are enhanced and easily available, the definition of intelligence too could become increasingly problematic. This could lead to an increased value of moral values and spiritual values, that is, those values that are not producible by genetic engineering. Thus, once physical beauty and mental intelligence are available it may that the rarer spiritual and moral characteristics may increase in value. We can also expect in this scenario for the metaphor of birth itself to transform from creation to production.
In Sarkar’s article titled “Laboratory Babies,” he asserts, “a day is sure to come when human beings will make babies in laboratories.18” Eventually, just as we evolved from Australopithecus, a new species will develop from us. But these future humans will be more creative, not caught in the physical world. Rather they will use their energy for new discoveries, for new inventions and for spiritual pursuits. Indeed, these new humans will be averse to the material world, particularly of family ties. But this type of discourse, the creation of humans, normally is considered obscene from the humanistic (religious or spiritual) viewpoint. But for Sarkar it is evolutionary. Eventually humans will co-create the real, the physical universe along with Prakrti (Nature) (in Sarkar’s cosmology Consciousness and Nature, Prakrti, are unified but it is the latter that preforms the activity of the universe, Consciousness silently observes). An individual mind, having evolved through different former lives, chooses a brain in a newly developing fetus through which it can manifest its previously unfulfilled desires, no the other way around. We suddenly have a totally different type of science. Firstly, Sarkar comes out as critical of technocratic interpretations of science. For example, he strongly asserts that science must be placed outside the control of capitalists, and conducted for the larger moral good. Science as currently articulated does not deal with the suffering of the miserable, rather it attempts to solve the problems of the rich. But nor does come out like Jeremy Rifkin19 and other anti-science and anti-technology, who argue that scientific progress can but lead to ecological and social damage. Rather these positions are placed in a spiritual and political vortex, where humanity moves ahead by conquering challenges–physical, mental and spiritual. Among these challenges is making science more morally and publically accountable.
For Sarkar there is creation and then through struggle and desire there is evolution from less developed life forms to human life forms. There is no reason why this evolution should not continue to new life forms (however created).
Moreover, for Sarkar, since embedded in his theory is divinity, structure and agency, it is not unproblematic that humans consciously (using the mythos of the spiritual) participate in the creation of the “natural.” In his theory of social change the divine exists as an attracting force, as a place of individual perfection. But there is also the social (the stages of history) and there is individual agency. For Sarkar, (humans can and must change the world, they must make the world where the standard of living is so high that the spiritual can be easily accessible. However since the inexpressible (absolute Consciousness) cannot be expressed in language and since the natural is ultimately a social construct, humans can change and evolve with nature, but they must do so with social responsibility (as opposed to market mechanisms). For Sarkar, without this needed social responsibility (here siding with Rifkin), the technician will continue to solve challenges without concern for those who are influenced by them and without the placement of science in a politics of structure and knowledge, it will continue to be managed by the dominating class.
For Sarkar the natural, while deeply historically patterned, nonetheless is ever changing. Technology can change who we are; it can allow humans to co-create with Consciousness. Genetic engineering does not have to be placed in the “it will destroy human nature” discourse or in the apolitical modernity discourse of “it will solve all our problems.” Indeed, for Sarkar, as humans locate themselves less in the sexual discourse they will become more creative in science, art and music. The creative urge in humans will be relocated from child bearing to the creation of new ideas and amenities for the betterment of the collective good. The relocation will change the natural and lead to increasing levels of ideational and spiritual culture.
Science then is situated in an alternative politics of the future. Sarkar creates a new rationality that rethinks science and spirituality. While critical poststructural theory sees science as merely one way of knowing the world and Kuhn sees science as having its own cycles of knowledge, and Nandy historicizes science and technology arguing for a view in which there is a plurality of ideas, Sarkar, speaking from the Indian episteme, can divide science into intuitional and material, thus allowing more ways of knowing the real. In addition, arguing from his view, science and technology become important but are now placed in an evolutionary, social model, one where the “natural” and the “spiritual” do not necessary follow the model of the religious era or the moderns; rather, he uses the past to reconstruct the future. Both material, mental, and spiritual worlds are real (resources and challenges) and exist within an ecology of consciousness wherein science and the mystical co-exist.
RATIONALITY AND REENCHANTMENT
Sarkar’s view, then, does not argue for an anti-science, anti-technology position, nor does it fall into a science discourse that exists outside the social and the political; rather science and technology are contextualized allowing for a new science and a new science of society.
Is this a return of Vico (and his new science) and Marx (and his scientific stages of society) or is it Buddha (and his radical epistemology) and Gandhi (and his recovery of premodern culture)? In which direction will the social sciences next move: toward empathy and interpretation or toward disinterest and distance? Are we about to lose universals as knowledge and power is localized and relativized? Or is a new model of the real about to become dominant that recasts these categories of “science,” “local,” and “universal?”
Sarkar’s works are exemplary. Influenced by the classical Indian episteme (although Sarkar moves beyond it borrowing from Islamic, Chinese and Western cosmologies), he does not fall into an anti-linear, anti-progress trap; rather he allows for linear progress in the context of the ancient cycle (there is a season for everything), of structure (episteme, class and gender), and of the divine. Yet at the same time individual agency is paramount, for it is we who create the world and recreate it even as the divine and the structural give it to us. The critical too remains.
In Sarkar’s reconstruction of science and society, in his quest for reenchantment, for a new rationality, the ramifications of politics and the construction of power are not lost sight of.
COMPONENTS OF SOCIAL THEORY
Traditional, Poststructural and Sarkarian Views of Science
From the traditional view, empirical observations are independently real with language merely describing the real. Language is neutral. From the critical view, data is decided by the dominant discursive formation (culture, episteme, paradigm, power). Data is seen as only the empirical because the present discursive formation privileges material, sensate reality.
For Sarkar, level of consciousness of experimenter influences the experiment. There are many levels of interpenetrating reality. In the traditional view, mind cannot influence experiment.
Realm of ideas in the traditional view.
Dominant discursive formation (other theories arise because of power or because of data or because of consensual academic community; the real is an epistemological view,) in the critical view.
For Sarkar, theory is that which leads to human betterment on physical, mental and spiritual levels; it is thus expressly political in terms of the constitution of alternative meanings.
In the traditional view, values are universal individual and group preferences. In the critical view, values are based on structure and discourse–episteme.
Agency in terms of choosing values is problematic.
Disinterest is impossible. One always speaks from a point of subjectivity. For Sarkar the role of the divine is also significant in shaping “us.”
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1962.
2Michael Shapiro, Language and Political Understanding. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981.
3Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1983.
4Ashis Nandy, Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987, 78.
6Edward Said, Orientalism. New York, Vintage Books, 1979.
7Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. New York, Grove Press, 1967.
8Wall Street Journal, “Heaven Only Knows What Comes Next in Pakistani Science.” (13 September 1988). See also Pervez Hoodbhoy, Muslims and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Struggle for Rationality. Lahore, Vanguard, 1991.
9Willis Harmon, Global Mind Change. Indiana, Knowledge Systems, 1988.
10Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angeles, Tarcher, 1980.
11Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point. New York, Bantam, 1982.
13Peter Manicas, A History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Oxford, Basic Blackwell, 1987.
14See, Robert Brown,The Nature of Social Laws. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.
15Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1981.
16See, for example, Michael Weinless, “The Samhita of Sets: Maharishi’s Vedic Science and the Foundations of Mathematics.” Modern Science and Vedic Science (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987).
17Sohail Inayatullah, “Laboratory Babies.” Review of Sarkar’s “Laboratory Babies,” Justice Horizons. Honolulu, Hawaii Judiciary, 1990.
18P. R. Sarkar, PROUT in a Nutshell. Vol. 15. Trans. Acarya Vijayananda Avadhuta, ed. Calcutta, India, Ananda Marga Publications, 1991, 13.
19Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy. New York, Bantam New Age Books, 1989.
Read other articles by Sohail Inayatullah at metafuture.org