Man, Myth and Miracle: A Scientist's Viewpoint

Sunil Mukhi
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai

(based on a talk delivered by the author at the Willingdon Sports Club, Mumbai, in March 2005).


In this talk, I would like to offer my point of view about myth and miracles, superstition and mysticism. It is the point of view of a scientist trained in the study of "the laws of nature". I have no excuse for presenting it here, except that I was asked to do so.

I do not like to reduce my views to a one-line summary, but if it were necessary, I could produce two lines:

(1) I consider superstition and astrology to be complete nonsense. Belief in such things is motivated entirely by human fear and ignorance.
(2) I do believe in myths and miracles in a definite sense. These are spiritual concepts, dealing with human nature rather than with nature.

The Ruling Emotions

Those of us who have email addresses regularly receive "spam" mail. Let me read out a few excerpts from such emails. They will sound all too familiar.

``It is the right time for me to leave the country (Sierra Leone) for safety with the 15 million U.S. dollars deposited by my late father in a finance and security company in Europe. I want you to assist me so that I can transfer this money to your account for safe keeping pending our arrival to your country...''

``Our client General Anderson Ernest Elwood who was with the Iraqi forces... made a fixed deposit of 18.5 million US Dollars in my branch. I will like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to Gen. Elwood so that you will be able to receive his funds. I have contacted an attorney who will prepare the necessary documents that will back you up as the next of kin to Gen. Elwood.''

That such letters are sent out so frequently suggests that they do work, at least some of the time. Apparently some people are willing to believe that they have been specially chosen by a total stranger who needs to give away a few unwanted millions of dollars.

Now in principle, such a generous stranger might exist. Nothing can conclusively rule out such a possibility. But is it plausible? Most of us would not think so. That is to say, we assign this a very low probability of being true. Making such an assignment is a scientific act, though perhaps we estimate the probability in an unscientific way.

Who are the naive ones who who respond to such letters? They are motivated by greed. They may be skeptical at first, but will shed their skepticism if the bait is attractive enough. Some have actually made an initial "facilitation" payment, as requested, only to discover that the transaction ends there. As we know, greed causes a suspension of common sense, logic and judgement.

An emotion considerably stronger than greed is fear. People may casually throw away an unbelievable offer of money, but fewer will readily ignore a letter that threatens dire consequences. In my childhood there were chain letters that promised to bring a curse upon us if we did not forward them to a number of people. The power of their curse was widely believed, for instance by my friends at school. The students would exchange stories of the fate that befell the uncooperative, and these stories would get more lurid with repetition.

Now, this is really all there is to superstition. We are capable of believing the most unlikely things, if we fear that disbelieving them could have dire consequences. Fear is more effective than greed in causing us to suspend common sense, logic and judgement.

This has mainly to do with the powerful and elemental grip that fear has on us. But there is another, more seductive, factor involved, which is trust. The most cynical of persons can trust a fear-monger, since the motives of such a person are not transparent. After all, what could someone hope to gain by warning us to stay home during an eclipse, or not to travel on an inauspicious day? Maybe a professional soothsayer gains a lucrative career by this means, but superstitions are spread mostly by people like ourselves. That makes the bogus claims so much harder to resist.

Why do we pass on baseless superstitions, while doing so little to propagate well-known facts? I will not venture an opinion on this here. My only point is that it does happen, and repeatedly.

The Scientific Method

Much is known about heavenly bodies and about microscopic objects on earth. All of it was learned by scientists, though some of them would not have thought of themselves in this way. Some were monks, others princes, yet others were simply lay people with curiosity (an increasingly rare breed today). All they had in common was that they followed a method: the scientific method.

It is quite easy to explain this method, which is based on a simple but profound world-view. Here are its characteristics:

(i) Make observations using reliable instruments.
(ii) Repeat your observations until the results are internally consistent.
(iii) Note down what you observe.
(iv) Draw such conclusions from your work as are very generally applicable, that do not depend on local circumstances, cultural practices, or personal prejudice.

The scientific method is amazingly universal. Some people claim it is just another type of cultural convention, but it was discovered independently in India, in China, in Europe, in ancient and modern civilisations. And it is followed, one way or another, by every educated person. A person may claim to be hostile to science (and almost everyone I know in Mumbai's high society is hostile to science) but when the chips are down, they will put their faith in it anyway.

Here is my favourite example. When you buy a cell phone, you require that it works. If a cell phone is designed using Vedic or Islamic scriptures, or Sufi mysticism, or your horoscope, but can't be used to talk to another person, it is no cell phone at all and you will not buy it. The principles on which a cell phone works are based on quantum mechanics, the revolutionary branch of physics that is one of the greatest legacies of the twentieth century. So, whether you admit it or not, when you spend your money on such a gadget, you are saying that you believe quantum mechanics works better than astrology.

Quantum mechanics is hard to understand but, as we have seen, its practical applications work very well. Besides cell phones, one is familiar with other applications including CD players, and notably with sophisticated medical instruments like X-ray machines, magnetic resonance imagers and laser knives. In this domain, it is relatively easy to tell what works and what doesn't.

In the more abstract field of explanations of natural phenomena, though, people are quite willing to buy stuff that simply doesn't work, such as astrology or superstition. And they will steadfastly go on denying that it doesn't work. Why? This is another sociological question that I will not try to answer.

Here is what we do know about natural objects, both microscopic and heavenly. They obey laws that we understand in great detail. The laws are mathematical and complex, but they work very reliably.

Therefore scientists should be able to tell whether any influence is exerted by heavenly bodies on human affairs, whether the phases of the moon or the alignments of planets can bring good or bad luck, whether there are auspicious days. And the answer is known: there are no such influences. The forces exerted by the moon and by planets on the earth are gravitational forces that we can both calculate and measure. They cause discernible effects on the earth, such as tides, but there are no discernible effects on human beings. It is only our vanity that makes us presume that heavenly bodies would care to do anything, good or bad, to our daily lives. It is also due to history, for at one time the scientific information needed was not available. My point is that this information is available today, and has been available for some centuries.

Similarly, we know exactly what happens during an eclipse. In a solar eclipse, the moon blocks part of the sun's rays from reaching the earth. It is a widespread belief, at least in India, that one can experience ill effects from going out during an eclipe, and that pregnant women are particularly susceptible. Whenever I argue with people who believe this nonsense, they inevitably stress that scientists do not know everything (which is true) and that the sun's rays might have contents or effects that are presently un-understood (which is also true).

But let us examine this more carefully. The contents of the sun's rays are, in reality, exceedingly interesting, but their visible light and heat are perhaps the least interesting parts. Within the radiation from the sun, scientist have detected exotic particles called neutrinos. They testify to fierce nuclear reactions taking place in the core of the sun. At the same time, they interact so weakly that they pass through our bodies all the time. Properties of these neutrinos have been understood only in recent years and have led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002.

So in fact, the sun's rays do contain strange things and we are learning about them only now. But do these strange things affect pregnant women? No, because they don't interact with pregnant women (or with the rest of us). My point is that very weak effects, such as can be observed only by sophisticated instruments, are by definition too weak to influence the lives of human beings, least of all in the dramatic ways claimed by astrologers. And my other point is that astrologers had no clue about neutrinos and their wondrous properties, because those can only be detected by scientific instruments. It is sheer foolish vanity to think that the human senses and/or intuition can detect that for which our eyes and ears were never designed. All great revolutions in science were due one way or another to new instruments.

A few millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment is today aimed at the sun day and night from all over the world. It is telling us wondrous things. Indian scientists are involved in this kind of activity and are making important contributions to knowledge. Yet, most educated people in our country remain unaware of these developments. They prefer to launch their business ventures at an "auspicious" time, consult the "planetary alignments" when children are born to them, and take a medievalist view of solar eclipses. Why? Yet another matter for the sociologists to figure out.


People make a big deal about coincidences. We meet someone called Raj in the morning, and then during our commute we notice a shop called "Raj Electricals". Uncanny? Not at all. It is only our poor knowledge of statistics that makes it seem so.

A coincidence is uncanny if it occurs more often than one should expect. But what should one expect? Without a little mathematical literacy, one would have no idea. What is the probability that two people in this room share the same birthday? It is a nice little mathematical puzzle, and it turns out that the chances of a coincidence are much better than 50-50. If one observes this coincidence occurring more than half the time, but has no idea that it is a mathematically predicted result, one is tempted to assume divine intervention or planetary alignment. But this is just as clever as trusting the gentleman from Sierra Leone to pass on 15 million dollars to you.

It is the same with the shop called Raj Electricals. How many times did you meet someone called Raj and then not see a shop, or hoarding, or banner, or article, that used his name? You don't know, because you don't keep track of all the times a coincidence doesn't happen. And you cannot estimate the probability of a coincidence if you don't compare the number of times it happens with the number of times it doesn't. As simple as that.

Myths and Miracles

So what does all this tell us about myths and miracles? Interpreted literally, they are as nonsensical as astrology and superstition. No one ever walked on water, any more than someone sent 15 million dollars from Sierra Leone to a total stranger. But should we be equally skeptical that the saints cured the sick and worked miracles on the lives of people? Here I am not so sure the answer is negative.

The human brain is an organ of incredible complexity, lodged in a complex body. We can estimate complexities, and a lot has been learned about the brain in the last decade, but we do not yet understand how it works in the microscopic sense. Much of what we know is gleaned from human behaviour.

Human beings exhibit a phenomenal range of possibilities, and they frequently astonish us by achieving the impossible. How does someone find the strength to climb the last few steps to the summit of a mountain, or survive for days buried in a landslide, or fight an apparently incurable disease? How does someone compose a scintillating piece of music or write a passionate sonnet? How did the Buddha look within his heart and the heart of all human beings and prescribe a universal code of compassion to end suffering? And on the other side, how does someone execute a gruesome mass murder or develop chemical weapons that destroy the victim's nervous system?

The history of human beings is the history of the drive to achieve. For good or bad, the most important things in human history have been achievements beyond the ordinary, beyond the expected, beyond what seemed possible. Such things deserve the name "miracles".

In this sense, I believe in miracles. But I do not expect that any law of physics is violated in the making of such miracles. There may even be a sound chemical explanation: for example, one's state of mind is known to cause different chemicals (adrenalin, dopamine..) to be released in the brain with consequences for the heart and the muscles. But, desirable as they are, no one yet knows a ``logical'' way to bring about certain states of mind. Belief, faith, love, desire, culture, and all things "non-scientific", play an important role in determining our state of mind and therefore what we achieve.

To summarise: the staggering scale of human achievement forces us to believe in myths and miracles, and there is nothing wrong or unscientific about this belief. These are our ways to give a purpose to life and give a life to the human spirit. Physics does not prescribe an alternative to love or to culture. But if you want your astrologer to tell you how to run your life, it will be expensive and you might as well wait for that cheque from Sierra Leone.

Sunil Mukhi
April 2005