20 October, 2020

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

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. 

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    Dr. David, the other major blemish and failure of Carlo was to get sucked in to the notion that Jaffna library was burnt by LTTE and not by UNP Gamini led thugs! Remember after the war was over in 2009 the DIG who was in Jaffna in early 80’s wrote a controversial book postulating this theory which Carlo was gullible to swallow in his book review. May be being still a Sinhalese at heart the euphoria of winning the war blinded his rationale which might explain why he supported 18a and was nostalgic towards Rajapaksha . Jayananda

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    well well… he is definitely a great soul who did not make money from noble professional that is called a Doctor !

    But in recent times, he went shopping for the megalomaniac Rajapaksa rogue family and lost all that good built over the years from ordinary folks like me.

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    While I am old enough to remember the very effective debunking of the religious nature of fire-walking rituals by Kovoor and Fonseka, there is no denying the fact that Fonseka became a stooge of the most reprehensible and violent regimes in Sri Lanka’s history and sought to give respectability to them.
    Intellectual capacity is still no alternative to morality, ethics and principle in the larger scheme of things particularly when his conduct brought rewards in the matter of appointment to august educational bodies.

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      E. Appointment rewards perhaps many chase after though it should not be at the expense of morality, but destroying rewards of NCMC and SAITM is an abomination at the lowest humanitarian level. Just look at the youth whose future he tried to erase to satisfy his political ego. Citizens have equal rights to study where and how they fit in. If paying for education was the issue, look at foreign graduates and all the rest of the world spending for their education. Rooted at deeper emotional level, he practiced clinical medicine only for about 2 years and killed 5 patients through neglect, according to his own boastful confession. Imagine the death rate if he was a routine clinical doctor. Fortunately he was teacher/professor but with GMOA TU mafia attitudes, Raja fanatics, smooth violence.

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      It is utterly mannerless and obnoxious to read that still, there are some idiots on this earth who seem to think that they can measure the value of a person’s whole life by whose side he/she was politically agreeing with.
      /
      Carlo did much more than fire-walking. He was a born believer in a fairer society he pursued with his Marxist alignment (and the final wish that his mortal remains be covered with a red shirt). He fought against imperialism in all its forms, its remnants in our country, drug and tobacco companies and there are many other positive contributions he made to Sri Lanka.
      /
      Attempts by those with vested interests (opposing the Rajapakse stance against those interests) who are prepared to pick holes in the life and character of a great man like Carlo Fonseka only immerse themselves deeper in the moral and ethical bogs they are currently in!

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    “endorse 18A and the removal of term-limits on the Executive Presidency. “

    i too endorse the removal of term limits.If the people want someone let them have him or her.

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      Shankar, When you remove boundaries and limits, absolute power corrupts absolutely without any form of accountability to anybody, which called dictatorship. Even this exalting of the mind called rationalism needs boundaries or it goes corrupt. Can someone explain to me the connection between rationalism and foolishly walking on embers and getting feet burnt. Carlo was treated for burns, and the whole act to me was irrational.

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        citizen

        leaders are born,not made.So they are scarce.term limits to lee kuan yew,mahathir,thatcher,etc would have been a loss to their countries. As long as there is democracy and free and fair elections let the people decide whether to continue with them or not.What we have to focus on is not the term limits,which is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater,but to see that the there are proper checks and balances to maintain justice and fairness to all. Because we have not done that, whether we have term limits or not does not make much difference because we get the same old wine in a different bottle.

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    Kumar
    There are some matters in the later life of Carlo F that went against the rational views that he upheld.
    He was theorizing about rebirth at length some years ago.
    His comment on the burning of the Jaffna Library was a disgrace.
    The shame of the LSSP perhaps had its impact on CF, who also became easy prey to flatterers.
    *
    I think that Kovoor challenged Sai Baba to produce holy ash without his shirt on.
    Devotion is blind and one can never convince those who flock to the HQ in Bangalore, years after the god-man died.

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    ”…..Carlo’s main life-time contribution was not to rationalism but to medical education …” I beg to differ.

    I didn’t know Carlo F & have never met him but from what I understand about this man & my conclusion is that he was just another overbearing academic who dabbled in politics & even sucked up to the Rajapakse regime, obviously for personal gain, which says much about his socialist conscience. As a respected medical academic & during his time at the high office of the SL Medical Council, what has he done to improve health service? He was at the forefront of the SAITAM controversy but what was his contribution to resolve the issue fairly? Did he ever stand up to the black mail by the GMOA? If I am not mistaken, he was part of the GMOA Mafia. Loyal friends may see his brilliant side but for me, it’s just hype with insignificant contribution, if at all, to society to justify the high praise.

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    raj-uk
    most people see only his good side and forget his bad side which occurred in his later years

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

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    When young Carlo Fonseka, Lecturer in Medical Faculty and volunteers fire-walked to prove there was no divine protection. The then young Lecturer in Engineering Kumar David pleaded the firewalkers {“………utter sacrilegious profanities to conclusively drive home the point fell on deaf ears”}
    Clearly entertained, Kumar did not suggest that one will not be able to walk in a trough of water at 60 deg C

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    I was not that inclined to have my “2 cents worth in keeping with “indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun etc… Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.” Ecclesiastics.

    Yet as a founder member who brought in a constitutional change to the effect that no member be barred from the RA without giving reasons to Mr. AT Kovoor’s (ATK) renamed Rationalists Association (RA) from its former name of the defunct Ceylon Rationalists Association in 1961. Prof Carlo Fonseka (CF) came to the notice of ATK at a meeting held in the Brtish Council, Kolupitiya when the book “Omega Point” written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was reviewed.

    Thereafter at a meeting, a monthly meeting of the RA at the Thurstan College hall; ATK tendentiously stated that CF would one day be the president of it. At a subsequent meeting, ATK alleged and advertised to increase his following that there was to be a miracle performing swami to address the meeting. CF took a partisan stand and failed to stand for the truth fairness or justice to the questions that I raised that I had to walk out through the french window as the police barred the doorways. The Observer reported to the effect that the RA meeting started on the note of a miracle by a founder member heckler referring to me and ended with ATK performing Black magic.

    Due to the above I was barred from attending the RA until I showed ATK 5 blisters from continuous 5 seconds touch on my left palm from CF’s fire-walking embers. ATK thereafter reduced his challenge time from one minute to 30 secs.

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    Part 2

    I have abridged and shortened much despite there being much more that I could say of those days but it will suffice for now to say that ATK , CF & others may have got into great trouble in trying do the fire walking as a challenge at the Kelaniya temple precincts. It was later called off by ATK on my cautioning him of the potential violence and any illegalities with any temple Acts or the law. It was after this that CF did it under controlled conditions.

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    everythings is OK about him. but he will not be forgiven for accepting the blatant lie by the army for putting the blame on tamils for burning the jaffna library. his credibility is totally out.
    Dayal

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    “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.”

    Mahinda is also an rationalist. A rationalist does not choose the most obvious path or the necessarily easiest path, but the most effective path. The easy way out was to give the LTTE their separate state. Instead, Mahinda chose a path in defiance of the international community. Regarding the statement, ““Science now, however, is so specialized with small incremental advances that there are few polymaths today. ” That is because even the small problems are vastly complex, beyond the scope of simple ingenious solutions. The next evolution in physics is a grand unified theory, which Einstein worked on for 20 years, unsuccessfully.

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      ATK had all coverage of him in a about 5 or more Daily News seize copy books. He had rented a back room or unit to a Lake House journalist who really brought him into the limelight through whatever special deals they had. Not sure if CF too had such copy books. What I remember him most for his “Ahnay Chicke” what a student of his had called a lecture on “Body Fluids”. As good as an epitaph as well for all the good, bad and the ugly that we all are differing only in the matter of degree.

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