Activist physicist

Fr. Chandrankunnel: Man of many convictions

Fr. Chandrankunnel: Man of many convictions  

A man of science, philosophy, religion, and activism. That's Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel, nominated the Indian co-ordinator for the Science-Religion Summit to be held in Bangalore.

GOING BY commonsense, science and religion are contradictory knowledge systems. But meet Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel, and such received notions begin to break down. He is passionate about science as he is about religion and philosophy. And what's even more remarkable is that his scholarship is coupled with social concerns.

Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel is a professor of Philosophy of Science and Registrar and Director of the Centre for the Study of world Religions at the Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (DVK), Bangalore. He is going to be the Indian co-ordinator for the Science-Religion Summit to be held in Bangalore in 2003.

Fr. Chandrankunnel has a doctorate in Quantum Mechanics from Leuven University, Belgium. His work, Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics, compared two interpretations in the area - the Copenhagen Interpretation by Niels Bohr and team and the one by David Boehm (of the Aharonov-Boehm Effect and the Boehm-Cherenkov Radiations fame). Fr. Chandrankunnel concluded that Boehm's interpretation was better because it explained the "non-locality problem" with great clarity and brought together in the same moment, three theories in physics - Quantum Mechanics, Theory of Relativity, and Classical Mechanics.

He shaped his concept under Aage Bohr, Friedrichvon Weizsecker, and Ilea Prigogene, all Nobel Laureates, who contributed substantially to the development of Quantum Mechanics.

The thesis has now been published under the title Philosophy of Physics. It is said that Fr. Chandrankunnel's thesis on Quantum Mechanics has had some role in recent discoveries of the retardation and enhancement of the velocity of light.

In July 2000, Chandrankunnel was selected by the Centre for Theology and Natural Sciences (CTNS), Berkeley, California, as winner of the Science and Religion Course Award for his contribution to the course: "Search for Unity and Interconnectedness: Meeting Point between Science and Religion."

The award is designed to support scientists and religious scholars tackling difficult questions raised in the interaction between science and religion. It emphasizes the intellectual integrity of both science and religion.

Where does Fr. Chandrankunnel place himself in the worlds of science and religion? He observes rather philosophically: "Physics lifts the mask of nature. Philosophy searches beyond them and promises to reveal the reality behind the appearances. The Almighty has ordained in my life not to choose between the two, but to integrate the two as my leitmotif."

He further observes: "Basically, there is something wrong with the way we operate science. Science is not unethical. We are putting science to unethical uses. Values of science and religion should become the basis of a holistic approach to life. We must have a perspective planning in the field of science. Indian science is entering a golden age. But it should relate its activities to suit the needs of the Indian people."

He believes there is an urgent need in the country to critically examine the bearings of Western science on Indian culture.

Until the 15th Century, he observes, Asian cultures were more scientific than the Western cultural systems. "The Chinese astronomers and the Indian mathematicians had contributed more to the growth of scientific knowledge than any of their Western counterparts." But 17th Century onwards, drastic changes occurred in the West. "The Western culture marched with strident steps subjugating most other cultures through advancement in science and technology. An intuitive observation by Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam that it is the development of technology that gave the West supremacy over other cultures is absolutely true. How the West has been able to master technology is a question worth probing mostly because of its contemporary relevance... " observes Fr. Chandrankunnel.

A major implication drawn from this is a conventional one - that renaissance freed the Western mind and asserted the power of reason, and that reason was born in the West, and the absence of it characterised cultures outside it. Fr. Chandrankunnel is, however, alert about the dangers that arise from these stereotypes, although he seems inclined to favour the supposed criticality of the Western mind.

Fr. Chandrankunnel observes: "It is unfortunate that there is a strong tendency in our culture to read the legend and the myth not as axiomatic themes, but as scientific knowledge ascribing epistemic veracity to it." He quotes Amartya Sen: "An extraordinary example of this has been the interpretation of the Ramayana, not as an epic, but as documentary history, which can be invoked to establish property rights over places and sites possessed and owned by others." (The Hindu, January 4, 2001) He warns us: "An over-stretched admiration for our past will definitely block our progress. The model of the West is that during the Renaissance period, it critically evaluated its own culture, and renovated it with an emphasis on science. It is a pointer to the way we have to examine, assimilate, and renovate our culture. If the Indian mind continues to eulogise its own culture, tradition, and philosophy without critically evaluating it, discovering its deficiencies and reinventing it creatively, the Indian culture is definitely in danger of a cosmetic adaptation of Western science and can never bloom as a successful culture."

He believes that the development of technology in the West was inextricably interwoven with the emergence of philosophy, and perhaps anticipates such a turn here too.

It is, perhaps, Fr. Chandran

kunnel's role as priest and journalist (as a special corres

pondent for the Malayalam daily, Deepika in the 1990s) that has helped shape his social concerns. As founder-member of the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD), he has been actively involved in the on-going dialogue between Christians and the R.S.S. in the context of attacks against members of the Christian community. He also raised money and material and led a group of volunteers from Dharmaram College for relief work in Gujarat immediately after the earthquake.

In the early 1990s, he went to Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, where he lived with the Naxalites to gain some understanding of their movement. He interacted with human rights activists and intellectuals such as Kannabiran, Varavara Rao, and Balagopal. He was the first journalist in Bangalore to reach the site of the air crash that killed over 100 passengers. Immediately after the earthquake, he rushed to Gujarat, worked along with relief agencies, and later wrote reports about the quake in various magazines and dailies.

Fr. Chandrankunnel is an inspiring example of a fine balance between scholarship and social concerns.


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