Gandhi is often described as being against science. And, no doubt, his own rhetoric sometimes suggests this. But that is most misleading. If Gandhi’s life is studied in entirety, a nuanced picture emerges of a man who was not anti-science. Nowhere, for instance, did Gandhi dispute Newton’s laws and other such claims and propositions of science. He would have thought it impertinent to do so and, more relevantly, quite unnecessary.
Gradually, Gandhi’s opinion evolved and sharpened into a criticism of what he thought were the misplaced priorities of science, rather than science itself. What he opposed was the elevation of science to a kind of centrality in culture that science in the modern period, especially after Newton, came to have in the modern West. There was also the practice of linking of science to profit and worldly gain and hierarchy that Gandhi opposed.
He thought that science had a tendency to move beyond the articulation of its laws to generating a ‘mentality’ of treating all things as resources and commodities, including nature and humanity itself. He had similar – and related – things to say about its mentality towards the law, the body and medicine, transportation, the feeding of agricultural surpluses into the creation of cities, the centralizing of power in a new form of state, and so on.
Gandhi's critique of science emanates from his dissatisfaction with the divorce of science and progress from morality. He often quoted the scientist Alfred Wallace to argue that people's moral sense had in no way improved as a result of scientific discoveries. Gandhi remained aware that one could not live without science, provided that it was kept in its right place. He had seen the misuse of science in his travels round the world and believed that there were limitations even to scientific search.
The practice of vivisection for Gandhi was a shining example of the need for limitation in modern scientific research. Based on a mechanistic notion of the body and the universe, it enabled the justification of the subjugation of the inferior non-human creation by and for the human. This to Gandhi was ethically unacceptable. (Gandhi did not adopt an obstinate intolerance of dissection. When a follower, who was a biology teacher, wanted to dissect a frog, he listened to both sides of the argument and ruled that the dissection could continue as it had scientific value.)
Gandhi's fears materialized years later as vivisectory practice was carried out in the concentration camps of Hitler and the bombing of Hiroshima during the second world war. The bombings were not required to defeat Japan but to send a message to the Soviet Union. If colossal death, destruction and suffering was the price to be paid, it was considered ok. The scholarship that provided the ideas and justified the Nazi slaughters were by university professors, as detailed by Robert Procter in Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (giving the lie to the liberal shibboleth that education helps you to distinguish between right and wrong).
Physicians claimed that if they disobeyed orders under the Nazi regime, they would be victimized but the few who refused don’t seem to have suffered. Various medical experiments were carried out in concentration camps which were carried out by trained medical professionals, the results presented at prestigious conferences and scientific academies. Results were published in scientific books and articles. German industry also profited from these experiments. For eg. Bayer used concentration camp prisoners and performed experiments on this ‘captive population’. Medical journals used the expression 'life not worth living' to describe those who were sterilized or those killed in concentration camps.
Gandhi also sought to reconstitute the relations between fact and value, science and religion in his method. He made it clear that he was not interested in mere technical solutions to a problem. Unlike many reformers and secular scientists, Gandhi did not see science as outside of religion. On the contrary, he tried updating religion to include science and science too to include faith. But unlike the Vedantists, for Gandhi to be scientific was to practice one's dharma. Ronald Terchek says in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
Gandhi rejects the premise that science and ethics are separate, that ethics only has something to say when something goes wrong. He fears that such reasoning assigns science the superior position, and absolves people of responsibility. For Gandhi, the primary issue is not how we 'take charge of the world' but how we live with nature and take control of ourselves.
The objective impersonal pursuit of knowledge about nature and society that science encourages produces a psychological process called ‘isolation’. This is the dangerous ability of people to separate ideas from feelings and to pursue ideas without being burdened by feelings. It is a psychological defense mechanism that enables scientists to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their inventions. According to the psychologist Otto Fenichel ‘. . . the process of logical thinking . . . actually consists of the continued elimination of affective association in the interest of objectivity’. This quote is in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy.
We need sometimes to think whether we should even develop a particular line in research. But scientists rarely accept limits to their research on the grounds that it might have dangerous or immoral outcomes. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci suppressed research into inventing the submarine because he thought we humans were too devilish to be trusted with such a dangerous invention. In the 20th century Enrico Fermi, one of the scientists who set out on the atomic bomb project, said, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all the thing is beautiful physics.”
Despite his radical criticism of the anthropomorphism of modern medicine inherent in the practice of vivisection, Gandhi was deeply appreciative of modern scientists' humility and spirit of inquiry, a spirit that he felt traditional people lacked. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Unani, Gandhi felt, had unlike western science, maintained a relation between science and religion, body and soul, but had not inculcated the spirit of research that fired modern science and gave it contemporary relevance.
But the praise was qualified. In 1921, inaugurating the Tibbia College at Delhi, Gandhi said, 'I would like to pay my humble tribute to the spirit of research that fires the modern scientists. My quarrel is not against that spirit. My complaint is against the direction that the spirit had taken. It has chiefly concerned itself with the exploration of laws and methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele.' Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind about the huge advances in science and the prevailing feeling that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise choices:
We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.
We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?