by Abbas Zaidi
The cocoon of science around our lives is so comprehensive that it has become more than a sine qua non for the world to go on today. Not only that. In the non-material, non-day-to-day affairs too science is the inevitable, formidable player. Science is a magic wand that gives credibility and validity to a concept or a methodology. It is rational and logical, and its findings and results are predictable. In the groves of Academe, anything “unscientific” stands to lose; from government funds to simple acceptability. That is why, those subjects that not long ago were purely “humanities” now proudly claim to have adopted scientific methodologies in order to be accurate, respectable, and valid. A typical humanities/arts subject tries to adopt a “scientific” point of view to earn respect. But what is the nature of science?
The answer should not be difficult on at least five counts. First, given an overwhelming preponderance of science in every walk of life; second, so much of work, time and money have been spent on science/scientific research; third, given the nature of their job, scientists operate in terms of total precision and accuracy (or predictability, an essential feature of science, will not come through); fourth, science is “open-ended”, curiosity-based and truth seeking; and fifth, scientific results are verifiable. That is why science has become a privileged route to knowledge, and it has become, as indicated above, exemplary for all other branches of knowledge. Hence as a matter of fact, there should be one clear-cut and generally agreed-on definition of the nature of science that should also provide guidelines for non-science disciplines. Do we have, then, one definition of the nature of science?
The answer, unfortunately, is No. A survey carried out by Brian J. Alters of Harvard University, reported in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, shows that 176 American philosophers of science did not agree on a single definition of the nature of science. Indeed, their standpoints often contradicted one another’s. The author concludes, “This study revealed that those who examine a primarily philosophical matter such as the criteria for the NOS (Nature of Science), the philosophers of science express major criticisms of some of criteria’s basic tenets and that different philosophers of science vary on their views about the tenets of the NOS. Therefore, many of the NOS tenets, which are commonly taken as factual, must be reconsidered in light of this study so that new criteria may be developed for future research…
“The study also addressed the philosophical underpinning of philosophers with regards their view on science education’s NOS tenets. There is a relationship between philosophies of space and views on the NOS; philosophers’ of science major philosophies of space correlate with their philosophy of science in general; and a minimum of 11 fundamental philosophy of space positions are held by philosophers of science today. Therefore, there is no agreed-on philosophical position underpinning the existing NOS in science education.”
If scientists are unable to understand the very nature of their own specialization, would it be justified, or even sensible, to judge something, an ideological construct or social theory, from the standpoint of science? Take religion, for example. It has been an easy scapegoat for those who cannot find any (scientific) logic in it. Since religion cannot “prove” its assertions from the scientific point of view-like the existence of God and human history from the scriptural point of view-the scientific-minded people relegate it to a position reserved for, say, voodoo.
Science claims to know truths and discover reality. But at best it studies parallelism, and the nature of variables. And yet the irony is that the nature of variables remains a mystery. Also, scientists in general concede that the nature of reality is one’s own mental construct and varies from person to person.
How can this lead to justifiable answers in the context of religion? Take Evolution, for instance. Science rejects religious concept of Evolution out of hand in favor of its own Evolution findings. But an objective look at the religious argument might subtract some of the incredibility accorded to it by science. God, according to religious doctrines, has an attribute of permanence and He being omnific/omnipotent/omniscient, has infused an attribute of “change” in His creation. This attribute of change put together with compatibility and self-perpetuation requirement of the created system generates an essentiality of “adaptability” which is perhaps what is known as Evolution. Human history, after all, has been the history of this change.
Unlike science, religion does not claim to formulate methodologies to discover truth, and it does not claim to regulate any human or natural sciences in the light of its own parameters. Then why should it be subjected to some parameters — “scientific” — on which it has no claim to make? Religion requires its followers to understand from the axioms that are its own. Wouldn’t it be a pity if we interfered in it by using axioms that intrinsically have nothing to do with it? Why should science be a yardstick to measure religion when the practitioners of science are themselves in the cloud regarding the very nature of their own instrument?
Science challenges the axioms of religion; but what will happen if its own axioms are challenged? Will it remain the same truth-seeking, objective set of criteria? Take for example, the antithetical operations like multiplication and division. These operations, it is accepted, have to be performed from left to right. If done otherwise, they will yield different answers (or maybe no answers). Such is the nature of science that its axioms have to be accepted as true from the start. In that event in what way are scientific axioms different from ideological dogmas? Is it that the nature of science is a ôfluidö construct, and the very act of probing set to understand it alters its overall outlook?
(Abbas Zaidi is Consulting Editor of Meghdutam).
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