A Short Essay In Honour Of Carlo Fonseka: Vicissitudes Of The Rationalist Movement

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By Kumar David –

Prof. Kumar David

The high point of modern rationalism as a theory and as a movement, internationally and in the domestic scene, was the 1960s. From the 1980s its appeal as an NGO dimmed in both arenas. The modern icon of worldwide rationalism was the brilliant Bertrand Russell; its guru in Ceylon, Abraham Kovoor (1898-1978). The torch of leadership of the Rationalist Society passed from Kovoor to Carlo sometime before Kovoor’s death if memory serves me right. As a student and young university don in the 1960s and 1970s I was an enthusiast but not a member of RS; exhaustively wrapped into the then LSSP as I was. Many close university pals though, Chris Ratnayake, MWW Dharmawardhana and Madusoothanan were card-carrying rationalists. 

Kovoor was an irrepressible ghost-buster and a god-buster. Following in the steps of legions of famed Indian ghost-busters, many of them Malayalis like Kovoor, he spared no effort touring the country exposing hoaxes, debunking fakes and kattadiyas and waging relentless war on superstition. His services to enlightenment were immense. His god-busting was less well known but no less important. He once related how he chased Sai Baba all over India in an attempt to corner him into an “interview” where, under controlled and supervised conditions, he would expose Baba’s “miracles” as no more than conjuring tricks. Baba fled from city to city but never granted Kovoor a meeting.

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

Carlo rose to fame when he exposed fire-walking as a sham. He proved it by training himself his recruits with fairly thick soles, to move quickly across hot embers, letting feet linger momentarily. It was a great success; the press was there and the exhibition buried the myth of fire-walking as of religious significance. Carlo and volunteers enjoyed a bottle of arrack and indulged in a pork feed before the fire-walk, but gentleman that he was, my plea that they loudly utter sacrilegious profanities to conclusively drive home the point fell on deaf ears.

Before taking up my theme today, the vicissitudes of Rationalism at home and abroad, I need to say that Carlo’s main life-time contribution was not to rationalism but to medical education, a topic not within the scope of this essay. Carlo has a splendid little booklet of essays “Essays of a Lifetime” which I reviewed for the Colombo Telegraph, I can’t remember when, and Ratnajeevan Hoole reviewed in Colombo Telegraph on 28 Feb 2017.

But I must copy this from Hoole: “Science now, however, is so specialized with small incremental advances that there are few polymaths today. Carlo Fonseka (MBBS (First Class), University of Ceylon; Ph D, University of Edinburgh; Emeritus Professor of Physiology at the University of Ceylon) is an exception – engaging in medicine, management of public bodies, theology, music, left-wing politics and many other things, and bringing these to the public through op-ed pieces, and radio and television talk shows”.

The recognition of reason and rational thought as the foundation of knowledge is very old, it was there among Greek philosophers and implicit in Confucius and the early Indian materialists. It is the bedrock of the Buddha’s way of thinking. However, rationalism, empiricism and atheism as these terms are understood today begin with the Enlightenment and René Descartes (1596-1650) dubbed the first of the modern rationalists. Not far behind were Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646-1716). At the peak of the Enlightenment, Voltaire (1694-1778) and Dennis Diderot (1713-1784) championed the primacy of reason.

Abraham T. Kovoor

However, an epistemological gap emerged between the rationalists and the empiricists. The former regraded reason, logic and mathematics as essentially true without proof or need of empirical evidence as they were intrinsically free of contradiction. Descartes and Leibnitz championed this view. The empiricists (Diderot, Spinoza and the scientific community of the next generation) held that empirical validation and physical evidence were necessary to authenticate truth. Cutting across this divide was the atheism that fused together nearly all these great rationalists and empiricists. Voltaire is the best remembered of this breed. John Locke (1632-1704) was a queer bird who advocated religious tolerance but demanded suppression of atheism because it would “undermine social order”.

The Ceylon Rationalist Society was mostly home to scientists (Kovoor was a botanist) from whom the distinction between rationalism and empiricism simply drew a shoulder shrug. Secondly, the possibility of being a rationalist and religious was a largely absent issue as they were nearly all at least agnostics. Atheism is not a necessary part of the rationalist tool-kit since one can hold that god moves in mysterious ways that do not affect the physical laws of the universe. The one unconditional demand of ghost-busting rationalists would be that superstition in all its forms be banished.

Rationalism, because of its hostility to entrenched views, did not stand far from political philosophies that rejected the class system imbedded in capitalism. Most rationalists were socialists and quite a few were Marxists. Carlo lived and died a Samasamajist and he was very close to and a great admirer of NM; I believe he was to an extent NM’s personal physician. Russel, of course, was a fierce anti-imperialist and a staunch social-democrat. But historically there has been a gap between Marxism and Rationalism and at times I have felt this tension in Carlo. Russel is the prime example. I find it incomprehensible that such a great mind could so badly misunderstand Marx (see chapter on Marx in History of Western Philosophy) on the role of the subjective factor in history. It’s absurd to say this, but it is as if he had not even read Marx’s great historical pamphlets (18-th Brumaire, Civil War in France, Class Struggle in France); but the puzzle remains. This is a mistake that Carlo did not make, but sometimes I felt that he did show diffidence regarding the fullness of Marx’s (and Darwin’s) dialectic which encompasses nothing less than the totality of the scientific method prior to the arrival of quantum uncertainty. (But that was not Carlo’s uncertainty, to make a bad pun).

The importance of the Rationalist Society declined from the late 1980s. Carlo was drawn into issues surrounding the practice and ethics of the practice of medicine, governance of the profession and medical education where he shone as a renowned teacher, deep humanist and respected opinion maker. (Some of my friends say his stand on private medical education was wrong). With ever more of Carlos attention focussed elsewhere, the Rationalist Society lost prominence. 

But there is more to it than that; the importance of rationalism itself as a cutting-edge tool in social transformation in Lanka and in the world over declined for bigger reasons. The post-war world changed in the 1980s; liberalism, social-democracy and faith in fairness gave way to the hardness of neo-conservative thought and the heartlessness of neo-liberal economics. Thatcher busted unions and buried the welfare state, Regan and Volker induced the 1981 recession and ended it in America. A new more brutal capitalism replaced the soft welfare state. The beginning was the coup in Chile and slaughter of thousands. This erosion of the economic universe was accompanied by US belligerence in the Middle East leading to a flood of refugees. The arrival of tens of thousands on European shores inevitably transformed the narrative. Learned-societies drew less enthusiasm from undergraduates who were a large part of the rationalist clientele in India and Lanka. A harsher narrative of race and bigotry took its place; rational folk had more pressing and more perilous battles to fight.

Carlo’s copybook was distinguished, offhand I can’t recall the name of any other Lankan scientist-activist who has risen to such versatile eminence. It is a pity then that he blotched the last page of this illustrious copybook in his twilight years by tagging behind Mahinda Rajapaksa, going so far as to endorse 18A and the removal of term-limits on the Executive Presidency. Nevertheless, the good that Caro has done will shine beyond this single failure. 

Source:Colombo Telegraph