Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

Science and Development
Sir Hermann Bondi
Inaugural address at the
Seminar on "Science and Development"
at Atheist Centre, Vijayawada on November 3, 1990

Science, it will be generally agreed, has been a most successful enterprise. Its advance has been continuous and substantial. How has this come about? People of all nations, all ideologies, all religions, and non-believers have been able to cooperate well and effectively in science, better than in any other major undertaking. The key to this universality is that we all recognise the supremacy of the test of experiment and observation. The progress of science depends first on scientists devising theories to describe what is known at the time. But these theories must make predictions of what the outcome of future experiments and observations will be. It is secondly the task of other scientists to devise experiments or observations to test these predictions, to build and to use the necessary equipment and to come to appropriate conclusions. Of course scientists will argue passionately to defend their favourite theories and will argue equally passionately to defend the reliability and soundness of their experiments. But in the end agreement will be reached, and the verdict of the required tests will be accepted. It is this point that enables scientists of all backgrounds to work together. One's own depth of conviction that one is right is wholly irrelevant. What matters is what experiments and observations show. Authority does not matter. A young scientist, by a well designed experiment, may successfully disprove the ideas of a famous senior scientist. By recognizing that we all are fallible the methods of science ensure the progress of this great human endeavour.

The relation of technology to science is often misunderstood. Science and technology are totally dependent on each other. I have stressed the importance of observation to the progress of science. These experiments and observations use instruments that can only be produced using the technology of the day. The need to test new theories more searchingly, with more precision and in new ways is only possible because of the advances of technology. Therefore the progress of science is wholly dependent on the progress of technology. Conversely technology advances by incorporating the latest results of science. Thus these two enterprises are intimately connected. As my great teacher Karl Popper put it, this progress reminds him of a person advancing through a morass, painfully advancing one leg while standing on the other, and then advancing his second leg while standing on the first. One leg is labelled 'Science' and the other 'Technology', and progress cannot be made without using each leg in turn.

A main spring of science is the universal human characteristic of curiosity. We all want to find out, even if the knowledge gained has no obvious use as is the case for example of astronomy. By accepting the common human features of fallibility and of curiosity so much has been achieved.

As regards development, this is necessary the moment we agree, as we surely must, that at present the situation is far from ideal for many people in many parts of the globe. There may well be discussion about the specific direction development should take, but there can scarcely be a denial that development is required. For it to achieve its aims it must employ technology of an appropriate kind, and it will be more beneficial if the questions it inevitably raises can be settled in an acceptable manner. Quite often development will be of advantage to many people while being disadvantageous to others. An example would be the damming of a river for irrigation or hydro electricity or both. Many will benefit from such a project, but those whose land will be drowned by the reservoir will suffer. It needs a decision of government to balance such claims in an acceptable manner and so development is generally very much dependent on the competence and respect the government enjoys.

The only morally defensible form of government is democracy. The responsibility for what is decided must be shared amongst all which is only the care in a democracy with the government responsible to the people as a whole. For a humanist, like me, with respect for human beings and their individuality, only a democracy is acceptable, a democracy in which there is an opposition, a democracy in which there is debate, a democracy in which decisions can be taken after discussion in a manner that is respected by all.

Democracy is not an easy form of government and frequently there will be awkward situations, as indeed India is experiencing just now. But even so, all experience shows that any other form of government Is not only morally wrong but inefficient, corrupt, and likely to cause disaster.

The whole world admires India's democracy, wishes it well, and in full of confidence that the present troubles will blow over without impairing it.

What is needed in any society is cohesion, the feeling that we all belong to each other and depend on each other. Anything that divides us, that separates us from each other is bad, whether it is religion, caste, class or race. As a humanist I firmly believe that what we all share in common values and in common attitudes is far more important than what divides us in religion, caste etc. We must work to ensure that these separatist forces are pushed into the background. This is especially important for children and young people. No doubt they will learn about the traditions and customs of their own group in their homes. It is therefore most important that at school, in the nursery class, at college; they mix, work, learn and play with those from other backgrounds. Then they will appreciate the many characteristics and values we all share. I will learn to resist all tendencies to separatism. I have stressed the importance of this universalism, the humanism for science, at the beginning of this talk, but pulling together and not allowing ourselves to be separated from each other is equally essential for development.