Posted by: cochinblogger | April 29, 2011

When Rationalism Is Jolted

Most days of the year, I’m a rationalist, skeptical of supernatural influences. However, life being the mystery it is, I am not a fanatical worshiper at the altar of reason. Reason is excellent at explaining proximate causes, but ultimate causes lie strictly outside its domain. Thus, even if science could explain how life arose, it would not be able explain the purpose of life. A rationalist would dispose of this question by claiming that the question is meaningless. Or that the purpose is to be found in ourselves and in our interactions with the material world around us. But this is an answer that does not satisfy most humans, and therein lies the hold of religion; and hence the roaring success of books such as The Purpose Driven Life.

Sometimes, events occur that jolt the convictions of the most hardened rationalist. I’m yet to experience such an event; my closest brush so far has been second hand, in the shape of the following anecdote from family lore that dates back to the 1920s. A patriarch of the family had passed away, and his will could not be found. His children, however, knew that he had written a will; he had told them so himself before his death.

Finally, in sheer desperation, they suggested to one of their siblings, who was known to be psychic, that he try and contact their dead father. He used a planchette and succeeded in contacting his father, who told him where the will was kept. Needless to say, the will was found there.

I came across an even more dramatic anecdote in Salim Ali’s The Fall of a Sparrow (a book I’ve referred to earlier in this blog), an example that is all the more impressive because the narrator, Salim Ali, is himself an avowed rationalist:

Talking of superstitions, I must admit that my own congenital unbelief in all forms of spiritualism, occultism, astrology, and ultra-sensory ‘magic’ of that sort had been somewhat rudely shaken, albeit temporarily, after what happened to my brother Aamir in Burma in 1919, less than two months after he joined us in business in Tavoy. A few miles out of the town there was a fairly large masonry tank in the beautifully wooded campus of a Buddhist monastery containing a dense concentration of carps, many of which were believed to be hundreds of years old and all of them regarded as highly sacred. They were pampered by devout pilgrims and picnickers alike and had grown enormously fat and ‘desirable’. But they were safe from poachers and vandals because of a traditionally rooted superstition that any person trying to catch or harm the fish was sure to come to grief. Aamir, like myself, was a complete disbeliever in superstition and occultism. Out of sheer devilry and as if to defy the fates he lightheartedly picked up a stone and flung it purposefully at the seething mass when no one was about. We had gone picnicking to this beautiful spot early that morning, Tehmima in the sidecar and Aamir on the pillion of the Harley-Davidson combination. He was perfectly hale and hearty and full of beans when we left, but complained of a slight stiffness in the joints after we returned around lunch time. We didn’t pay much heed to this since from a longish pillion ride over rutted kutcha roads this was nothing unexpected. But towards evening Aamir felt slightly feverish, with pain in the joints which got increasingly worse, with rising temperature in the next two days. It was then diagnosed as a severe bout of rheumatic fever, and in spite of all such medical aid as was available in that one-horse little township, poor Aamir was dead on the ninth day. Call it coincidence if you like, but it did give a severe jolt to my rationalism.

And this is the problem with unbridled rationalism: a single irrational counterexample is sufficient to unravel its basis.


  1. Fascinating.
    I think problems start once we think that either religious metaphors or scientific analysis can give us anything more than a temporary working model of what we experience. “For now we see through a glass darkly..”

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