Discrediting reason

In the article Why some engineers become terrorists in today’s Sunday Times, Shashi Tharoor asks “Is there something about engineering that makes its most proficient graduates vulnerable to the temptations of violent extremism?”. He goes on to cite a study by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that reports the presence of a large number of engineers in right-wing extremist groups in general and radical Islamist groups in particular. He writes

“Engineers consider themselves problem solvers, and when the world seems to present a problem, they look to engineering-type solutions to solve it. Engineering, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, predisposes its votaries to absolute and non-negotiable principles, and therefore to fundamentalism; it is a short step from appreciating the predictable laws of engineering to following an ideology or a creed that is infused with its own immutable laws. It is easy for engineers to become radicalised, the researchers argue, because they are attracted by the “intellectually clean, unambiguous, and all-encompassing” solutions that both the laws of engineering and radical Islam provide.”

This is partly true and partly and viciously false. The method of engineering is the method of science. The principles and laws of science are indeed absolute and non-negotiable. But they are not just that. Unlike religious principles, they are objective, evidence-based, verifiable and demonstrably true. To the extent that an engineer is attracted to radical religion, he is denying the validity of the scientific method.

What does one hope to achieve by trying to show a similarity between the method of science and religion? Here is a clue

“…Without the humanities, we cannot recognise that there is more than one side to a story, and more than one answer to a question.

That, of course, is never true in engineering…”

Note that Tharoor never asks the question “Is there anything in religion that makes its practioners violent extremists?” The intent of the article is to discredit the power of reason, the validity of the scientific method and the confidence that they generate. Since it is impossible to do this honestly, one must resort to tying science and religion together so that the effects of religion can be used to discredit science.

What does one hope to achieve by discrediting the scientific method? Since there is not much evidence in the article, that is a question I will leave to my readers to ponder over. In the last line of the article though, there is a hint of a clue.

“…Perhaps the solution lies in making it compulsory for every engineering student to take at least 20% of his courses in the humanities.”

K. M.

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6 Responses

  1. I agree that both Islamic Fundamentalism and Engineering seek singular, unique answers. Although I wonder, why Tharoor did not think about why there are so few (no?) Hindu/Christian Engineers who turn extremists. Or is it that there is something in the interpretation of a particular religion that has more to do with its followers taking to extremism? This said, I think it is a great idea, if the Engineers study humanities as 20% of their course.

  2. Pronoy,
    I think you missed my point. Providing unique answers is not an essential or important difference. The essential difference is dependence on faith versus dependence on facts and reason.
    As to why there are fewer Hindus/Christians resorting to violence, I believe it is because Hindus and Cristians in general do not consider themselves as under attack. Remember the reports of vandalism on Valentine’s day etc? Since it is impossible to spread beliefs based on faith by means of reason, a religious person wanting to spread or protect his religion has to resort to force.

  3. We are too much dependent on facts and reasons. We want to find out reasons for everything that is happening around us using reason and logic because innately we (as engineers) believe in logic.

    We think logic is the soul power. To an atheist, logic gives that power and by which he can say, “God does not exist because we cannot prove it logically”. What if somebody cannot respect logic as we do, he has to believe in something other power, apart from logic. That power can be called god.

    We can hence directly correlate Reason and Religion because we have utmost faith in Logic, somebody has utmost faith in God. Logic is god for us.

    Have you ever questioned your faith in logic ? Have you thought if it can be logically proved that logic reasoning can be wrong.

    Kurt Godel, the introverted confidant of Einstein, proved that given any sufficiently comprehensive logical system there would always be problems which were true (ie. within the purview of “human logic”), but yet unprovable within said system.

    Does anything above makes sense, logically ?
    It might be right to discredit reason. Why you have faith in reason and not in religion.

  4. UnknownPhilosopher,
    By what means do you hope to convince me that reason is wrong?
    By what means did you convince yourself?
    By what means did you come up with your objections to my post?
    By what means did you conclude that Godel’s proof is valid?
    By what means did you form the concepts of ‘reason’, ‘faith’, ‘logic’, ‘proof’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’ etc?
    Reason is the faculty that allows man to obtain and use his knowledge. Logic is the method of reason. All of man’s knowledge and all his concepts are dependent on reason and logic. To deny their validity is a fallacy.

  5. Lets consider a man in 15th century. He might have come up with the thing called Reason/Logic. Somebody asked him these questions :

    By what means do you hope to convince me that God does not exist ?
    By what means did you convince yourself?
    By what means did you come up with your objections to bible?
    By what means did you conclude that you are right ?
    By what means did you form the concepts of ‘reason’, ‘religion’, ‘faith’, ‘logic’, ‘proof’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’ etc?

    Religion is the faculty that allows man to obtain and use his knowledge. God is the creator of you, this world and your religion. All of man’s knowledge and all his concepts are given from God. To deny God’s existence is a fallacy.

    I am not saying that reason is wrong. There might be something above reason, right now undefined, right now a part of eternity which lies outside the reach of our mind. I am just saying we might not have evolved so much as we think we have.

  6. UnknownPhilosopher,
    Please get your history right. Aristotle wrote an entire treatise on logic in the 4th century BC. Men have been using reason and logic as long as they have been men. Indeed it is man’s ability to reason that sets him apart from other animals.

    “Religion is the faculty that allows man to obtain and use his knowledge.”

    Definition of the word faculty:
    1: ability, power: as
    a: innate or acquired ability to act or do
    b: an inherent capability, power, or function
    c: any of the powers of the mind formerly held by psychologists to form a basis for the explanation of all mental phenomena

    Religion is not a faculty. Man is not born with a religion. Religion has to be grasped by the mind.

    “There might be something above reason, right now undefined, right now a part of eternity which lies outside the reach of our mind.”

    Definition of the word reason
    2 a (1): the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways

    Your statement reduces to
    I understand that there is something I do not understand and will never understand.
    How do you understand that?

    I have posted an entry on reason here. Please post further comments there.

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