By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Transcribed by New Age Islam Edit Bureau
02 December 2017
Can you hear me? Oh good! Then perhaps I can try and get you a bit worried about things that have worried me for a very long time. I have been worried about the decline of reason and the resurgence of unreason.
Now for quite a long time this is something that is quite universal. It is there in every country of the world but more and some and less in the others. It is something which has enormous implications for the future of human existence and for the resolution of our problems.
Let me back up a little bit. About 300 years ago, Europe went through a phase which is called the age of reason. It emerged from darkness, from the fight against superstition, and this fight then led to the birth of modern Science; modern Science which gives us everything that we have today in our modern world, but more than that it gave us an opportunity to look at how humans should relate with other humans and that culminates in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which I think is absolutely the most fantastic document that has ever been written.
But now reason is under attack for from many quarters. I could give you example after example. let me start with something that a lot of people over here might know about so this is something like three years ago a man by the name of Agha Waqar Pathan; he said he had invented a car that would run only on water. So no petrol, no gas, nothing; all you would need is bottled water. You know Nestle stuff and with that you could drive for hundreds of kilometres. Now there is great excitement in the country. You had newspapers, you had television channels which just did nothing but cover this. You had the great scientists of this country. In Dorset the man drove his car before 200 People who had degrees in science. I don't necessarily call them scientists and they all clapped. We had endorsements from our great nuclear heroes Dr. AQ Khan and Dr. Samar Mubarak and they said this is wonderful.
There were three meetings of the cabinet. The government of Pakistan held three cabinet meetings in which they discussed what they would need to do now that this car was just going to be everywhere because now we would not need to import oil. The television anchors—they were worried. A very popular anchor Talat Hussain asked his viewers, you know now that we have got this national treasure over here how are we going to prevent him from being kidnapped by the Americans.
And so this went on and on. Well, one of those anchors invited me (his name was Hamid Mir) and in that I had a confrontation with that man. He said I did not know any physics. I said you are a fraud you ought to go to jail and I must say my family, my friends and family did not like that at all. They said you should use such strong language as it turned out it was not particularly strong because the man had been inducted for armed robbery some years ago.
Anyway the whole thing collapsed. But now let us reflect upon why this man achieved such status in such short time and why everybody wanted to believe him. The answer is we love magic we love magical solutions to our problems. So science ask you to reason to look for evidence to patiently sift through the evidence, the facts but when you have magic; magic says in a puff like that you can solve all your problems and so that is the reason why we had this national embarrassment. Now let me tell you how the exercise of a rather simple reason could have helped us avoid this.
First of all there is an obvious question to ask. But hey! How come it is only in Pakistan that this water car is going to be on the streets? Didn’t anyone in the United States and Japan, China or any other country think of it? Alright! That would have been a straightforward question. It is the one we should have asked ourselves. We could have also asked ourselves. Has there been an attempt like this made before. Just go to Google, put in water car and if you do that by the way you will find dozens and dozens of hits and you will find that they all lead to some kind of fraud.
A third exercise of reason would have simply been this. Go back to your eighth grade chemistry book and ask what happens when you pass carbon dioxide through lime water. You know it turns milky. Okay! So if you were to take the exhaust from that and pass it through lime water, it would turn milky to tell you that what he is saying is wrong, because if he is actually burning something which he is. I have not looked at the car but there is no other way because it violates the laws of thermodynamics, you would have found that it would turn milky.
So reason could have saved us over there. Let me now change gears altogether. Go from physics to politics. We are here in Islamabad—a city where for the last two months, we have seen a major portion of the city occupied dharna. It is initiated by a very popular political leader who says that he can end corruption in 90 days. He has made this statement again and again and there are lots of people who believe him. Everybody over here—you and me—wants to get rid of corruption and if he can do it in 90 days, well, why not it is even better than the water car.
Now let us just think about things a little bit. In 90 days it is very possible that this great leader could drag our present government leaders and the past ones over hot coals and make up cough up all those millions, billions which they have stashed away in Swiss mags. I do not doubt that he could, good, I mean tighten the screws and you can get anything done. Fine....fine. I would love to see that happen but let us go to the next stage. Is corruption only the corruption of your political opponents or is it something that is endemic within the society? Your policeman is corrupt your Patwari—the guy who does the land records is corrupt, your judges are corrupt and we know it and no contempt of court intended, but we know they are corrupt. We know that contractors are corrupt, and my goodness, you look at the construction in slumber then you see how the roads have been dug up and you see that you cannot get from one place to the other and why because somebody has eaten up the money.
Alright! And it is not just now it has been happening for a very long time. Some 20 years ago I got a frantic appeal from the faculty at Fairport University which is in Sindh, as you know and they said please come and visit us at our new campus. There is something horrible we have to show you.
And so I went there and then my colleagues took me to the new campus of her poor university that had been constructed at a distance of about 30 miles from the old campus. It had already something like twenty eight buildings constructed it looked utterly desolate. They told me that the buildings are collapsing even before classes have started over there and they took me around over there. I thought I had walked into a graveyard of buildings. You know about the Leaning Tower of Pisa that leaned over for centuries and is still leaning over here. Some of those buildings leaned over and they did not last the just collapsed into rubble the auditorium collapse into rubble and so this entire campus. This is unbelievable. Of 28 buildings built at some horrendous cost collapsed.
Well, what happened? The contractor was taken to court, where he said it rained so much that the ground settled so the buildings turned over and he said it was not me who did it. It is God who did it. It was an act of God and now here is where exercise of rationality of a reason is needed because we- you and me and everyone—want to get rid of corruption but it has to be a systemic process it has to be engineered.
We have to change social relations. We have to change the how Kinship matters in our society etc. There is no flash solution. Let us not look for the water car here. Pakistan did not invent reason. It did not invent unreason. It all started in Europe. And Europe, after the age of reason, went into an age of unreason as well. And you do not see it any better than the beginning of World War 1. Why did the World War 1 come about because nationalism had come to take a grip upon the minds of people everywhere in Europe? If you were German, if you were French, if you were British, you belong to your country, you did not belong to humanity, you belong to your country and so the intense nationalist passions that were stirred up again and again to nationalism led to the most ferocious battles in history.
The Battle of the Somme, this is 1916, I cannot remember the exact day. 70,000 people dead and these were British soldiers on horses in cavalry and rushing into the mouths of German machine guns and barbed wire being mowed down. That First World War led to 10 million dead, the Second World War too many times that etc. I have a Danish physicist colleague John Avery who told me a wonderful proverb.
He said when the flags are unfurled, all reason lies in the trumpet, ah, that trumpet you hear twice a day at Vaga, when the flag is furled and when the flag is lowered and thousands of people go to watch the flag lowering ceremony, they have peacocks strutting with turbans on their head and they shoot their legs so high in the sky that they suffer from bruised muscles. They do it every day, month after month, year after year, without respite and you know what happened three days ago at three weeks ago when that suicide bomber came along blew himself up and took 60 lives with him and wounded hundreds more. Well, what happened?
The next day the same crimes there to cheer them again what does reason say? Reason says you peacock on this side, you peacock on that side looking at you too, if you did not have different uniforms I would not be able to tell the difference. It is just accidental that you happen to be born on the Indian side and you on the Pakistani side. We are the same people, we are divided by a territorial boundary and now that we have nuclear weapons. We are willing to annihilate each other.
If reason were to prevail, it would be so simple. I did not choose my parents, you did not choose yours, the guy on that side of the border did not choose his parents; in fact I do not know anyone who has chosen his parents, chosen his country, chosen his religion. And so if it is all accidental, reason tells you, tells us all that these fights are no fights, they are irrational. I am going to end fortunately on a note of hope.
So Europe went through these absolutely terrible times. You had the beautiful cities of Europe dressed and Berlin, London—all of them. Some of them more than others bombed from the skies, hundreds of thousands dead in a single bombing that night of Dresden killed 200,000 people more than in the bombing of Hiroshima............
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