Is objectivity in science possible?

Most scientists will tell you that the fashionable field of philosophy of science has failed spectacularly to influence how practicing scientists work or to provide any clues to the operation of any part of the universe. Nowhere has the clash been as obvious as on the battlegrounds of epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and possible extent of knowledge. Leading philosophers have taken, for lack of a better term, a philosophical stance that the true extent of knowledge can never be known; they remain skeptical that a scientific framework for integrating the physical laws of nature (especially those concerning quantum mechanics and relativity and gravitation) or for understanding consciousness in purely physical will ever be feasible. Regardless of what we think of individual theories, I think it is important to consider, in broadest possible terms, what exactly is the extent of knowledge:

Recently, in reading Nobel Prize-winner, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg’s excellent book Dreams of a Final Theory, I came across the following passage:


Basically, what Weinberg is  saying is that the laws of nature are independent of the mode of discovery and that there actual is such a thing as objective knowledge.

A few days later, I came across a diametrically-opposite viewpoint propounded by eminent philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, who has the view that there is no objective science. We only have “our science,” by which he means a human science, primarily lead by the Western scientific tradition. He further theorizes that any other science, and especially that of a possible intelligent civilization would be vastly different, because it would be “their” science.


So, who is correct?

For what it is worth, there is really no way to disprove Rescher’s idea which uses deductive reasoning  or to prove to Weinberg’s idea  which uses inductive reasoning. Rescher’s thesis that there is another science  will always be feasible, because we will continue to be humans, and his underlying deductive principle that humans cannot know any other science will be valid. On the other hand, Weinberg won’t ever be able to prove that science is objective. Just because everything we know up to now seems to support our assertion of an objective truth, doesn’t mean that what we will learn later will necessarily support this theory. Note how Weinberg builds in a “fail-safe” to his argument: everything we know is part of current objective knowledge; however, as our own knowledge changes, there will be “tweaks” to our objectivity.

Of course, given the logical foundations of these two viewpoints, the jury might be out for a very long time on who is correct.

(OK, I’m not going to hedge my bet on this one, though that would be the safe and easy thing to do especially when the alternative involves contradicting a Nobel Prize winning physicist. But, you already know from my last blogpost that I prefer deductive reasoning to inductive reasoning.)

Perceptions are landscapes. Memories are works of art.

I was not feeling well. In a feverish delirium, and for no apparent reason, I began to recall a house I often visited in my childhood. I remembered that when I last visited this house, it seemed greatly in need of repairs. The family that lived there had fallen on hard times. It seemed that over the course of fifteen years of use, the house had worn down quite a bit. I was disappointed because I was remembering a place as it was and comparing it to an ideal vision deeply embedded in my memory. But what shook me the most was that the house seemed smaller than I had remembered it. How could that even be physically possible? Surely, the outer dimensions had not changed? Were there more people and objects inside making the dimensions seem different? Or had my own perception of it changed? Perhaps, both were true.

Memory is a hostile witness. I first saw the Grand Canyon on a cold morning when I was nine. It was a different Grand Canyon from the one I saw decades later, even though I could trace landmarks I had seen the first time. The basic assumption I make every is that the world changes interminably, but my memory is perfect. But where are the benchmarks to compare against? Proteins decay. Neurons find new connections. Memories are mutable. I change every day. How can I truly conclude that I’m even the same person after all these years?

And it is not just me. Stars exist as celestial bodies in three dimensions. We see stars in the sky in two dimensions in relation to other stars. We arbitrarily connect stars to form constellations. By finding patterns, we influence what others see in the sky as well. Meanwhile, the stars drift away. They burn out. The relation of memories to objectivity is similar.

Then again, what exactly is an objective world anyway? An objective experience cannot occur, since everything that happens must be subjectively compared to an earlier experience, either personal or learned, to make any sense of it. Every perception is filtered through senses and through the capacity for thinking. There are various wavelengths of light that correspond to what we call colors, but we cannot say objectively that colors exist beyond collective human thought. The other senses fair even worse. Henri Poincaré was singularly insightful when he said that objective reality was that which had been determined by the consensus of several thinking beings. In other words, there is no “reality” devoid of individual cognition and there is no “objectivity” apart from the rules which are agreed upon by our fellow humans. A frog in a well can know that the world is the well, but cannot know what lies outside of it. That is the sum of human experience.

But as sobering as this thought is, possessing a feeble intellect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even with an unreliable memory and limited capacity for thought, there is much to be learned. There are commonalities we can find with each other and with our planet. Every emotion is a gift. Perceptions are landscapes subject to shifts in weather. Memories are limited works of art. Endowed even with an idiosyncratic wellspring of consciousness, life is a beautiful thing.

On missing my favorite holiday

Im staring out the window at the grey sky and the leafless trees. I take a sip of tea to soothe my raspy throat. I have been congested for the past week, but it is just as well that I can steal a few moments before I head into another marathon meeting at work. This is mildly depressing. This used to be my favorite day of the year. This used to be the day I looked forward to the most.

 I remember how Saraswati Puja, the day when we all got together to celebrate wisdom, used to be. I remember heading out on a rickshaw with baba to school-bazaar the night before to pick out a painted clay murti of the goddess. The face always used to be covered with newspaper, only to be revealed at the time of worship. One the way back, we would stop at a fruit-sellers to pick up oranges, bananas, and kul (which we were told not to eat before Saraswati Puja).

 The morning of Saraswati Puja, after a bathing, I would wear a dhuti and a panjabi and get ready for the puja. Up until my late teen years, baba used to perform the puja, but armed with a panji and a book of Sanskrit hymns, I took over shortly thereafter. That was one of the appealing aspects of Saraswati Puja. All of us knew the vandana and the arati. Worship of the Goddess of Learning was an unpretentious affair that happened in thousands of households like mine. You did not need to go to a neighborhood puja mandap to offer your respects like you would for Durga Puja or Kali Puja, although you might receive an invitation to attend Saraswati pujas at your own school or college. Indeed, Saraswati was a member of the family who visited every year: her blessings and aspirations in granting us knowledge through books and through music were as genteel and meekly bourgeois like we were.

 Every year on the day of the puja, I would place my textbooks at the feet of the goddess and it was the one day in the year when not studying was socially sanctioned (with the convention being that if you studied on Saraswati Puja, you lost whatever little knowledge was in your possession). Of course, you had to be selective about the books that you chose because you couldnt just dump them all there. After all, the space at the feet of the goddess was prized real-estate and there were other people in the family too. I seem to recall always picking particularly tricky subjects like mathematics and physics, though whatever blessings I got from the goddess helped little during my exams. Perhaps there is wisdom in not doing well in exams? Maybe that was the lesson for me.

 Cutting the fruits was a very important job, and one that my grandmother, starting at the crack of dawn, would cheerfully take on each year. After the puja was completed, it was acceptable to consume the prasad of cut fruits. Only after everyone had consumed the prasad, and by that time it was likely late afternoon, could you venture outside to see the other para and public pujas (often with socially relevant tableaus). It was the one day in the year, when all the girls wore saris and some of the foolhardy boys (and you can count me in this group) wore dhuti-panjabis. Otherwise, we never thought of Saraswati Puja as an equivalent of “Bengali Valentine’s Day,” though I hear it is often marketed as such now.

 Ironically, it was after I went abroad to actually gain further my education that I became disconnected from Saraswati Puja altogether. The last time I celebrated in 2000 was special in many ways. It was the last year my extended family was together in the home we lived in to celebrate, and it was just before my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer. 

 Ultimately, Saraswati Puja, like all important holidays, is about family. It is worth celebrating, even if you have to make modifications suited to your current life. I cant celebrate today because Im about to head to a meeting, but I can defiantly mumble the hymns while I blankly stare at a presentation in a conference room. And the weekend is only a few days away. Maybe this year we will place some of our books in front of an image of the goddess on a tablet.

A horror story

– Can you tell me a scary story today, baba?
–Do you want to hear about demons? Perhaps, villainous creatures that lurk in the night?
– No, those are all boring. Can you tell me something that is really horrifying?
– Yes, I think I can.
–Does this story have ghosts?
– No, this story is even more frightening than ghosts, because it is real. Let me tell you a secret first. Everything you see around you seems to follow certain predictable laws that you’ve been observing since you were born.
– And?
– And, today I am going to tell you that these laws work, but that they are not always true. What you have noticed in your life has been by a process we grown-ups call inductive reasoning. It is something a very bright man by the name of Sir Isaac Newton used to describe the world. He saw the world pretty much the same way that you see it.
– If he was a smart man, then why isn’t what he saw true?
– Well, there was another smart man, Albert Einstein who said that notions like space and time are connected and our observation of objects and time depends on how fast we are moving.
– I am not moving!
– I hate to disappoint your worldview, son, but we are all moving. You, me, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, the stars.
– That’s not too scary, I guess.
– Wait, there’s more. At another level, there are another set of rules that are the opposite of what even Einstein thought. And people call this quantum mechanics.
– I don’t much care for names. Why should I be scared of this?
– Because this is a real world around us. It is hidden to our eyes, because it is very tiny.
– Smaller than my Lego parts?
– Smaller than your Lego parts. These are, in fact the smallest parts. And there is even a small piece of light called a photon.
– If these parts are so small, how do I know they are there?
– That is because we can see what they do and smart men can do sums that show they’re there.
– Huh… but baba, why is this scary?
– Because in this world, things can be at multiple places at the same time, until you look for them. And then they show up in one. And then when you try to describe one thing, it affects some other different thing at the other end of the universe at the same time.
– But how can something be at more than one place, baba? How can it change something else far away?
– No one knows. Another smart man, Erwin Schrödinger tried to explain quantum theory by saying that there was a cat that was both dead and alive.
– How can a cat be both dead and alive? What will I see if I look at the cat?
– Well, if you look at the cat, it will be either dead or alive. It will be both until you look at it, then it will become either. At the same time you look. Not before. Not after.
– How is all this even possible?
– Because you are part of the story. That is the truly scary part. There are many reasons people give. Some people say that this is just the way it is. Some people say there are infinite parallel universes. Some people can do sums about wiggly strings that look very hard, so they must be on to something.
– So, what you’re saying is we don’t know?
– What I’m saying is we don’t know.
– I’m scared. I want my ma.



Of shifting rivers, shipwrecked colonialists, and Calcutta

The sky and the water were two different shades of mud. The distant bank where the Rupnarayan River met the Hooghly distributary of the Ganges River was a thin sliver. Walking along the road that hugged the side of the Hooghly, we noticed more silt and the carcasses of various rusting ships that had been abandoned. A group of street urchins began to follow us. We reached the edge of docks when one pointed out what appeared to a human leg with a tennis shoe floating next to the steel support of docks. Perhaps, someone had fallen over and had been carried away by the treacherous currents to this spot. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly rivers was a graveyard for both ships and humans.


But it wouldn’t be the first time that such a tragedy befell someone. History is replete with many similar tales involving both local villagers and colonialists who were sucked in by the ever-shifting quicksand and silt of these rivers.

How much had the Gangetic delta of West Bengal changed over the centuries? I was curious, so I turned to all the sources I could find. In The Early Annals of The English In Bengal by Charles Robert Wilson, published in 1895, there is a valuable hand-drawn map depicting the course of the Hooghly River based on maps of early colonialists from the sixteenth century. I superimposed this map on to a current day aerial map of the delta region of the Hooghly River from Google Maps. I discovered that while much of the Hooghly River traversed a remarkably similar path even after more than four centuries, the deltaic region was markedly different. Of course, comparing a hand-drawn map of early colonialists with a more exact modern map invariably lead to some differences in scale, but even in my lifetime the landscape of the deltaic region of Bengal had been changing due to the massive amounts of sediment the rivers carried from across the Gangetic Plains.


Even one hundred years ago, Nayachar, a large island off the coast of the port town Haldia, did not exist, though it can easily be spotted on a map and visited today.

When Job Charnock established the city of Calcutta as the hub of the East Indian Company at the site of local villages on the Hooghly River, little could he have known that it would soon become one of the most significant cities in the most powerful empire the world has ever known.  To establish the foundations of the mercantile and colonial powers, it immediately became essential to navigate the shape-shifting Hooghly River to ship men, materials, and ideas for the establishment of the imperialist infrastructure. But Charnock, who is now buried in a quiet spot at Park Street in the city he founded, did not live long enough to see Calcutta become a world city and an outpost of the British Empire in Asia.

In 1693, Francis Ellis became Charnock’s immediate successor. The noted writer, Sir Evan Cotton recalls in Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City (1907) that Ellis was “a man of little character or ability.” Back then seas and rivers were highways, train-lines, and air-routes combined. Disaster struck the young colonial city within a year of Ellis assumed office, though in this case, to no immediate fault of his own. Cotton recounts the story of The Royal James and Mary which was on its way to Calcutta from Sumatra with a valuable cargo of trading supplies. On 24 September, 1694, this ship struck a dreaded shoal at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers, near the spot I was visiting. The Royal James and Mary quickly turned over and sank, thus giving rise to the name of two moving quicksands “James and Mary” that would plague numerous travelers for centuries. In fact, navigating the last stretch of river extending from the Bay of Bengal up to Calcutta was perhaps more difficult that passage across the oceans!

During most of the 1800s through the early `1900s when the Hooghly was still navigable up to Calcutta for large vessels, such was the value of this route and the difficulty in its passage that there were expert “pilot sahibs” in the employ of the British Raj who guided ships through the last stretch.  Cotton says of these expert navigators that they were familiar with “every inch of the eastern channel” and that they knew all the tales of the wrecks therein.  Because the river bed changed more or less daily, charts were completely useless. Current river conditions were recorded hourly, much in the same manner than meteorological and traffic data is noted today, and these data were telegraphed up to Calcutta, from where it could be transmitted to stations down the coast. The development of the telegraph in India, and the first experimental lines from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour (which later extended down to Khejuri) was therefore necessary to stay up-to-date with the conditions of the Hooghly and Rupnarayan rivers.

The importance of keeping the river navigable cannot be understated. Calcutta, was the seat of the British Empire in the jewel in the crown. In those days, navigation from Europe was almost exclusively by sea. One could leave for Calcutta by steamer from ports as far away as Southampton and Marseilles.


The city was very different back then as well. The vast plain, or Maidan of Calcutta, was during the late 1700s, a massive swamp, and many solid streets that came up in later centuries were navigable waterways. Devastating cyclonic storms impacted the city, which resembled more Venice than it did London.

Travel to Calcutta remained perilous through the 1800s. The British administrator and archivist, William Wilson Hunter commented on the perils of travel to Calcutta via the Hooghly river in his monumental series, The Imperial Gazetteer of India in 1885. He writes, “shifting quicksands are rapidly formed, and the channels have to be watched and sounded and supervised with almost the minute accuracy which a watchmaker would give to the repair of a delicate timepiece. If a vessel touches the bottom, she is pushed over by the current.” Many ships sank quickly in the water, including the ill-fated County of Stirling which sank in 1877 in eight minutes and a British steamer in 1878, which capsized in two minutes, resulting in great loss of property and life.

One of the most captivating eyewitness accounts of the difficulty in navigating the Hooghly River sandbanks is provided by a British solider, John Arthur Bayley, on his first assignment to India in Reminiscences of School and Army Life, 1839 to 1859 (1875). Bayley wrote at length on the horror of capsizing in what seemed to him to be a calm stretch of river.

“Everybody was on deck and the officers of the ship were pointing out the position of the quicksand which a ship of large size towed by a steamer was on the point of crossing just before them, The steamer with her long tow rope had followed a bend in the river, but the ship being badly steered followed the chord of the arc. Suddenly, it was evident that something was wrong with her, and she slowly heeled over.”

“’She’s touched,’ cried the crew of the Barham, and touched she had with a vengeance, for in half an hour, ship, masts, and all had disappeared, the crew having just had time to escape in their boats.”

So much has changed in hundreds of years. The British left. Bengal was partitioned. Calcutta became Kolkata. In the interim, many other forms of transportation developed and travel by ship across the kalapani  to Britain is not on anyone’s mind anymore.

Sitting by the bank, still, I couldn’t help but share Bayley’s thoughts. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly seemed so wide. The water seemed calm. There were people living in huts right up to the edge of the water.


It is very much a false sense of security. The swift currents and the dangerous sandbanks have not gone away, as our discovery of the dead man in the water reminded. I recall a report in The Telegraph newspaper from just the last decade. One of the few passenger liners  that still embark from Kolkata (for Port Blair) MV Harshavardhan, ran into silt close the confluence of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers in 2002 with 700 people onboard. Fortunately, Indian Coast Guard was able to rush to the spot, so there was no loss of life. The ship was also salvaged, so ultimately this story has a happy ending.

Clouds descended over the rivers. So many ships with buried treasures and the ghosts of passengers were hidden in these murky waters.


Exploring the ruins of a Jain temple in Paschim Medinipur

One morning while having tea and cream crackers, I was browsing through Chitralekha, local magazine on arts and culture, when I came across a short photo-essay by Prof. T.T. Mukherjee of Dantan Bhatter College on an abandoned centuries-old Jain temple only a few miles away from Medinipur town. I perked up. Although there are Buddhist sites scattered across Bengal, I had not heard of any ancient Jain temples in the region. I did know that the southern part of Bengal, including most of Purba and Paschim Medinipur districts had been a part of the kingdoms of rulers of Kalinga. Quickly researching the topic, I found out that the early rulers of the eastern Ganga dynasty did patronize Jainism, giving credence to the theory that any abandoned Jain temples had to be at least 600 (and more likely 900-1000) years-old.

What was more amazing to me was the fact that there was such a site right across the Kangsabati river from my hometown that I had never heard of! When I spoke to family members and friends, they were clueless as well. The only person I spoke to who could provide reliable information on its existence was a poet and essayist who had visited it years earlier. I searched for the precise location on Google Maps and found that at least one person who had visited it had been kind enough to drop a label. So, armed with confirmation from an article, an eyewitness, and a map I headed out to see if I could find the ruins.

On the way, we asked for directions and found that many villagers had no idea what we were talking about. We drove very close to the estimated location on the map, and knew we were on the right track when we saw fragments of architectural structures in front of farmers’ homes. There were a few that were used as milestones as well.  One person enjoying tea at a roadside stall was able to point us in the right direction, but road conditions deteriorated rapidly.


Finally, after slowly plodding through a dusty trail that passed farmers’ homes and brick kilns, we reached a courtyard in front of a hut. Two women were soaking in the winter sun on charpoys. Two small children were looking at us with puzzled expressions on their faces.

We crossed the courtyard careful not to trample on the paddy that was drying there. Then we saw the structures. The farmers had tied their cows to the stones of the ruined temple. It was difficult to spot the structure, which must not have been more than 20-feet high, because the entire roof was covered with leafy vines. We pushed away cows grazing in the vicinity and entered the ruins. I was encouraged to go further because it was winter – not much of my skin was exposed and I didn’t have to worry about snakes.


In the central sanctum was a centuries-old stone statue of Mahavira to which someone had more recently applied sindoor. In the outer part of the temple the roof had given way in many places. Without any efforts at conservation, the entire structure will collapse soon.


In every village in Bengal there are temples that are centuries old that are still in use. However, none that I’ve seen are quite as old as the ruins of the Jain temple at Jinsar. It is possible this temple fell into a state of disrepair because of lack of patronage from locals, none of whom were practicing Jains.

Who built this temple? How old is it? We may never know.

That is the beauty of traveling. You only need the willingness to travel and to talk to strangers, plus a GPS-enabled device to have an adventure.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column at

A visit to the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghalmari

Driving on a straight stretch of National Highway-60 from Medinipur to Balasore, you would be forgiven for missing the small sign unbefitting one of the most significant archaeological sites discovered in Bengal. After all, the sleepy hamlet Moghalmari, is similar to others in the southern part of Paschim Medinipur district, close to the border with Odisha. But after traversing a few hundred metres off the highway, you come across an impressive hillock, which locals refer to as the “mound of Sakhisena” and the “mound of Sashisena”. My own native village is in the vicinity so I’m familiar with the area, but even a day-trip will acquaint the casual observer with the geography of the region and to that the fact that this is an anomaly since most of the region is very flat.

In 1996, a local schoolteacher, Narendranath Biswas, informed Asok Datta, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta about various ancient-looking artifacts villagers were finding near this mound. A very large number of medieval coins with Buddhist inscriptions, shards of pottery, and ornate bricks were being discovered.


In 2003, the mound and two other adjacent sites were selected for excavation by Dr. Datta. This small village, Moghalmari was hypothesized to be a part of a flourishing ancient center known as Dandabhukti. Further, just as today the village is situated just off of a national highway, in antiquity, it was thought to be on a trade route connecting Tamralipta, one of the most important ports in Buddhist times, to other sites of significance to Buddhism.


Further examination of the site led Dr. Datta and his team to believe that the Subarnarekha River, which now flows approximately 4 kilometers southwest of Moghalmari was close to the mound, further strengthening the argument that the village was once a center of Buddhist learning.

Excavation began in earnest, but proceeded slowly through five stages over nearly a decade, more often hampered by lack of sustained funding and bureaucratic bottlenecks, than by any shift in significance. Excavations leading up to 2012 revealed that the mound was the site of an extensive Buddhist monastery complex built over centuries and perhaps as early as the sixth century, the likes of which have yet to be discovered elsewhere in Bengal. Many human figures including that of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, bowls, terracotta lamps, tablets for worship, and seals were found within the central region surrounded by massive brick walled structures ornately decorated with stucco panels and floral motifs.


A brick stupa was discovered in 2012 along with proto-Bengali scripts. Shortly before Dr. Datta’s death in 2012, he wrote in a local magazine, Ebong Shayak that “Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in Bengal.”

Not much has been gleaned about the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghamlari from the standard texts of the time that historians rely on for information. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) may have alluded to it in 638, when he visited Tamralipta, but he did not mention any specific name. Tamralipta is extensively mentioned by Xuanzang and Faxian (Fa Hien) before him, but to date, no archaeological site corresponding to this major Buddhist centre has been discovered. As such, Moghalmari may be the best preserved site in the vicinity and could hold the key to unraveling the secrets of Buddhist society in Bengal at that time.

I visited the mound at Moghalmari in October, 2012. Up until that time, only small areas of the mound that had been excavated by Dr. Datta’s team. The area had not been cordoned off by the Archaeological Survey of India. In fact, the only sign mentioning the historic significance of the Buddhist complex at the location had been erected by a club of local citizens, who had also taken up the important task of safeguarding the excavated sites. Some relics had been shipped to Kolkata, while others had been kept in a small clubhouse converted into an archive. We were the only visitors that day.


This was in marked contrast to the situation earlier this month. The Directorate of Archaeology & Museums of West Bengal is currently undertaking a complete archaeological excavation and restoration of the Buddhist monastic complex at the mound. I visited the site last week and was greeted enthusiastically by experienced, local diggers who had previously worked with Dr. Datta, and state archaeologists, who guided me around the site and eagerly answered all my questions regarding the layout of the complex. Work is progressing rapidly and many artifacts are being uncovered every week. I also saw a flat site adjacent to the mound, which in the near future will house a small museum of antiquities.


I am very excited that we will finally learn more about this important site, and this unknown facet of our history, but I also understand there are underlying responsibilities. For many years, the Buddhist monastic complex at Moghalmari was safely buried under layers of soil because no one knew about it. With excavation will come the challenge of protecting the structures from tourists, vandals, and thieves. The structures will also be exposed to the vagaries of local weather such as high humidity and water erosion.


Elsewhere on the subcontinent, in Mohenjo-Daro, concerned authorities are contemplating reburying exposed structures under soil to protect them from further damage as exposed walls are crumbling from the foundation. Preservation is an ongoing activity, and the people I spoke to at Moghalmari this month told me that they had thought seriously about this important duty. I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to rise to this challenge. Moghalmari contains extensive evidence of our early cultural heritage which deserves closer inspection: the responsibility of protecting it lies not only with the authorities who plan to safeguard it, but also with us.


December 19, 2013- update: Archaeologists uncovered a gold coin from the Gupta period (likely sixth century A.D.) and a locket yesterday. The coin has the image of an emperor on the obverse, and the image of what seems to be a goddess on the other side.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column for M3).