Deconstructing Science and the Scientific Outlook

Science as a way of knowing has advantages over other ways of knowing, but it also has certain limitations due to some underlying assumptions. Embedded in society, science is unavoidably affected by social conditions. 

Sundar Sarukkai’s book What Is Science? and Meera Nanda’s Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science present two contrasting ways to look at science. Elaborating on what is science, Sarukkai (2012) in the book contends that there are other ways to know our world, besides science. Nanda (2016), on the other hand, who is critical of other ways of knowing, mounts her criticism referring to the myths propagated by Indian mythology.    

Science opens new realities through its instruments. Scientific knowledge is a special kind of knowledge to critically understand standard views, especially in relation to logic, rationality, knowledge, and the human subject. Science can be understood in multiple ways—as a concept, as a method, as inquiry, as a search for truth, as a way of thinking and doing, and as a world view. These understandings also tend to be influenced by political ideologies. 

As a concept, the title of science is intrinsically associated with an authority that designates what science is. For example, astrology is not accorded the status of science. Science includes only those activities that are dubbed as science by scientists. As a method, science entails a systematic method of continuous investigation, based on observation, scientific hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation and theory building, which lead to explanations of natural phenomena, processes, and objects. All of these are open to further testing, revision and falsification, while not “believed” by faith, accepted and rejected on the basis of evidence. The use of mathematics and exploring the relations between theory and experiments are unique to science. Scientists make hypotheses and deduce consequences, which are open to be proved wrong. Verifiability alone is not a criterion since it needs empirical content. As an inquiry, science is a search for truth, a question, and not just a doubt. It is also a clarification and an attempt at conceptualisation. 

As a search for truth, science seeks to discover truths about the world such as new particles (for example, quarks). It has discovered countless facts not accessible to ordinary perception or inference. As a way of thinking and doing, science is a critical authority as it demands the reason for accepting a conclusion as a way of doing with a spirit of experimentation. It is a world view that evokes a sense of beauty and wonder of the world. It is a particular view that enables itself to be tinkered with. It credits nature with no agency of its own, but also acknowledges of its secrets to be discovered. When science is referred to as “political,” it is meant that it is social in character as it creates a social community whose decisions and actions affect a group of people. There is a recognised authority that holds the portals of the scientific community to admit or refuse an entry. Science can have different political associations. In terms of technical and public understanding of science, there is a lot of ambiguity as to what really constitutes science. 

According to Sarukkai (2012), science has its own successes and limitations. First, it has predictive success, and second, it has theoretical success in describing, explaining, and unifying complex phenomena. Both require a great deal of creative and persistent tinkering. Third, it has ontological success in discovering new phenomena, new objects, and a creative capacity to open new worlds. Fourth, it has institutional success in its universal applicability and global reach. Fifth, it has social success because it can convince the people and the governments that it is the most important discipline. Its success is based upon its use in defence and administration. 

Limitations of Science

There are limitations to science as well. The activity of science is fundamentally geared towards describing and explaining nature. Its mode of description and explanation are through control. For example, chemistry and biology are primarily about the world they create, and not about a given world; the capacity to generate such a world allows science to describe and explain more effectively. Science uses a variety of beliefs, upon which it builds an empire. Mathematical and quantitative models are one way of representing reality. There are other kinds of reality and situations which cannot be modelled this way. There are issues of ethics and social responsibility, and it does not give place to multiculturality. Who has the right to be curious? What can one be curious about? Modern science reacts against imposed constraints. Freedom of mind and subject become a central issue for science as well as for art and philosophy. Science and scientists do not have the capacity or interest to constrain their thoughts, because what justifies their activity is the ideological values they ascribe to, that is, curiosity and freedom. There is a need for responsibility in freedom. However, in the paradigm of development, the establishment of large science and technical projects, we do not have enough time to correct mistakes. 

There is a need to humanise science. Science is after all only one project. Art, literature and music are other equally valuable enterprises. One has to recognise that there are other forms of knowledge, including art, literature, and spirituality. There are different communities that have varied views of the world. Bringing all these activities together in harmony is the only way in which the future of humanity as well as the future of science can be harmonised.

Speaking of the limitations of science, Duraiswamy’s (2009) observations are pertinent to recall. Philosophers of science have distinguished three aspects of reductionism—methodological, epistemological, and ontological. In terms of methodology, it is a process of breaking down complex and puzzling wholes to bite-sized fragments, examining each piece and putting together information so as to obtain some insight into the place and role of the fragments to the whole (Duraiswamy 2009: 339).

Philosophy of Science

There is a renewed concern to unravel the philosophy of science (Bokulich 2003). Broadly, this may describe two different, although related, sorts of inquiry. On the one hand, it may deal with the philosophy of particular branches of science, such as physics, biology or economics. On the other hand, it is used to study, more generally, the epistemological issues involved in science. The central questions are what qualify as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology when it explores the relationship between science and truth. Can science reveal truths about unobservable things, and can we justify scientific reasoning? While philosophical thought pertaining to science dates back to Aristotle, engagement with the above-mentioned issues came to fore in the middle of the 20th century. 

Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) path-breaking work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions disabused us of the notion that science proceeds through incremental accretions. On the contrary, it progresses by creating a paradigm shift in the set of questions, concepts, and practices that define a scientific discipline in a given period. A small number of philosophers argue that there is no such thing as the scientific method. A new approach is to study how knowledge is created from a sociological perspective. Can one scientific discipline be reduced to the terms of another? Questions such as these arise more specifically with respect to a particular branch of science. It is challenging to characterise what is meant by an explanation when the thing to be explained cannot be deduced from any known law, because it is either a matter of chance, or it cannot be perfectly predicted from what is known. One view is that a good scientific explanation must be statistically relevant to the outcome to be explained. Some hold that a good explanation is unifying a phenomenon or providing a causal mechanism. Although it is taken for granted, it is not clear how one can infer the validity of a general statement from a number of scientific instances or infer the truth of a theory from a series of successful tests. 

One approach is to acknowledge that induction cannot achieve certainty, but observing more instances of a general statement makes the conclusion more probable. A way out of this difficulty is to admit that all beliefs about scientific theories are subjective and personal, and the current reasoning is merely about how evidence should change one’s subjective beliefs over time. We choose the simplest possible explanation, however, there is no such thing as a theory-independent measure of simplicity. After all, all observations involve both perception and cognition. Observations are affected by one’s understanding of the way in which the world functions and that understanding may influence what is perceived, noticed, or deemed worthy of consideration. Long ago, neurosurgeons indicated how our minds always categorise, that is, economise the sensory load in order to deal with the plenitude of sensory data. Values intersect with science in different ways. There are epistemic values that guide scientific research. Logical positivism holds that only what is verifiable is science and cognitively meaningful. 

Science proceeds based on five axiomatic assumptions. First, that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers. Second, this objective reality is governed by natural laws. Third, these laws can be discerned by means of systematic observation and experimentation. Fourth, that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. Fifth, we assume the constancy of laws in order to meaningfully study the past (Whitehead 1997). 

Roy Bhaskar’s exposition on the subject of science elucidates essential aspects of the scientific method (Bhaskar 1997). For scientific investigations to take place, he states that the object of that investigation must be open to manipulation and internal mechanisms actualised to produce certain outcomes, which is what is done in running experiments. Science is an ongoing process where there is a continuous effort to improve concepts to understand the mechanism under study. While empiricism and positivism locate causal relationship at the level of events, Bhaskar maintains that critical realism locates them at the level of generative mechanism, and hence, causal relations are irreducible to empirical conjunctions. In other words, constant conjunctive relationship between events is neither sufficient nor necessary to establish a causal relationship. 

Indian Perspective towards Science

Nanda (2016) presents an acerbic and polemical tirade against the Indian penchant for fame. This is a timely warning, but there are also limitations to her critique of pseudoscience. In our modern era, science has achieved prestige as a source of knowledge. To claim a special status in this field, there is an attempt to project the Indian civilisation as being “the first in the field” by nationalists. While India, no doubt, had made some remarkable advances in astronomy and mathematics, the desire to secure a place among the cognoscenti spurred an attempt to achieve this by making some unconvincing claims. Drawing on mythology, to claim that Ravana in the epic tale of Ramayana flew in his pushpaka vimana (an ancient flying machine) meant we knew about air travel or that the mention of Kauravas as being a hundred in number meant that India knew genetic manipulation; or the reference to Sushruta implied that plastic surgery was well known. India like China has had a continuous civilisation, unbroken unlike Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Unlike India and China, other civilisations reached a pinnacle of accomplishment, but declined overtime due to foreign invasions and replacements by other regimes. India’s continuous civilisation gives us the possibility to re-read its history (which predates written versions) to accord it with modern understanding of phenomena.

Nanda goes on to list some of these claims as unwarranted. There is a similar attempt to give all the honour for discoveries to the Greeks. Pythagoras is given the credit for the famous Pythagorean theorem, but she points out that Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia can lay equal claim for priority. Honour should go to Pythagoras only for dealing with numbers. She traces the theorem“the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of squares on the other two sides of a right-angled triangle”to the carpenter’s tool kit, and the only clear evidence in India that links it to this theorem occurred in the 12th century AD. This geometrical relationship was known in many other ancient civilisations.   

Likewise, she argues that the idea that plastic surgery was practised by Sushruta or that nose reconstruction was done by barbers is merely a leap of imagination. Linking Karna (a character in the Mahabharata) to genetic manipulation is also a figment of imagination as the theory of genes was established only in the 12th century. Knowledge of human anatomy became possible through dissection of cadavers carried out by medical professionals in Italy. Indian physicians could not have envisaged blood circulation or the distinction between arteries and veins because the body was not probed adequately. Nanda (2016) ascribes the absence of dissection in India to our notion of purity and pollution. Contrast this with the curiosity-driven observations that took great strides in astronomy, geometry, and medicine in Alexandria. Herophilos investigated anatomy, brain, and the nervous system to indicate that arteries were conduits of blood. Ayurveda was established during the Buddhist period. However, there was a stagnation in this area. The difference in the growth trajectories of science between Europe and India is primarily sociological. The barriers between scholars and craftsmen were not breached. 

Nanda (2016) also takes on Keshab Chandra Sen and Vivekananda, and her criticism is that they initiated a process of braiding together mystical empiricism, scientific empiricism, and Hindu exceptionalism in a potent mixture, which received an audience in the United States, which was going through new-age philosophy (Nanda 2016: 161). Vivekananda managed to secularise esotericism. Nanda (2016: 168) declares, “This syncretism between magical thinking and instrumental rationality of science was an attempt to appropriate the vocabulary of science while rejecting its materialistic world view.” Coming to the later scientists of the nationalist period for revival of science in India, she holds them responsible for mixing up categories. For example, she argues that Prafulla Chandra Ray’s tome on the Hindu account of chemistry mistakes alchemy for chemistry.

Social Dimensions of Knowledge

Science is a social activity carried out by a community of persons who practise science. Inevitably, there is a social dimension to this activity. As society changed, the practice of science also underwent changes. “We individually cannot hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it for the community of philosophers” (Pierce 1878: 133). Welbourne (1981) also affirms this requirement that we need a community of knowledge.

Popper (1962 and 1972) formulated the notion of falsification to indicate the method of science. In essence, it meant that science progresses by pointing out observational inadequacies in observational and conceptual inconsistencies in another’s theory. This grounding in observation and public fora of verification lent science an alternative to metaphysical assertions. What distinguishes present-day science from those early days of lone geniuses is that large teams of researchers are engaged in military and academic research. Much experimental research in high energy particles is conducted in big establishments. Sources of funding by private bodies, national bodies, and international organisations have raised new concerns of ethics. Priorities may be dictated by political considerations.

During the heyday of a scare about population growth in developing countries, many attempts were made to control fertility by administering to women doubtful and invasive medication with harmful side effects, distress to women. Even today, female foetuses are aborted with the connivance of the medical fraternity in cultures that have a preference for sons despite legislation that makes it illegal to use diagnostic techniques to detect the sex of a foetus. We have ended up with a perverse sex ratio with fewer females per male, whereas nature endows females with greater survival capacity. In India, mass hysterectomies are carried out on women to reduce their fertility, and often, these are done under unhygienic conditions. Misuse of scientific techniques is not uncommon. In large-scale research done by teams, the verisimilitude of collaborators is difficult to check. In many areas, especially in specialised domains, we are forced to depend on the testimony of experts. Science is not value-free, but steps can be taken to mitigate the influence of inappropriate values. 

However, this is not as easy as it sounds. This poses an important limitation on the capacity of the public to expose frauds if there is one. We have to act on the basis of faith in the pursuit of ethical values by scientists. Such faith can be undermined by the politics of power. Why do we accumulate self-defeating nuclear weapons knowing that we cannot use them? The social organisation of science is governed by social relations like race, gender, and inequality in material resources. Over the years, feminists have mounted a necessary critique of science as practised predominantly by male scientists. 

E F Keller (1995), S Hack (1996), and Barbara McClintock (1983), who advocated and practised feminism, have made important contributions to science and philosophy of science as scientists. Given that values play a decisive role in science, socially progressive values ought to shape not only decisions about what to investigate, but also the process of justification. According to philosophers of science, scientists are persuaded by what they regard as the best evidence or argument, the evidence most indicative of truth, and the argument in question is relevant for producing a certain scientific knowledge (Hack 1996). H E Longino (1990) draws attention to the semantic gap between statements describing data and statements expressing hypotheses or theories to be confirmed or disconfirmed by data. Second, scientists rely on peer review, but she cautions that to be effective certain conditions are necessary. Some of these conditions are the provision of venues for critical interaction, the level of belief distribution in the community, public accessibility of the standards that regulate discourse, and tempered equality of intellectual authority. As of now, we have only partially constituted empirical knowledge, because the encounter between individual-based epistemology with its focus on testimony and disagreement are transactions only among individuals. There could be more fully developed social epistemologies. 

The Realm of Consciousness 

Roger Penrose (2005) inquires about the ultimate scope of science. Can science only talk about those material attributes of our universe that are amenable to its methods, or do our mental attributes remain outside its compass? In other words, is the phenomenon of human consciousness beyond the scope of scientific enquiry, or will the scientific method one day resolve the problem of the existence of conscious selves? As of now, an essential ingredient is missing from our scientific picture. A scientific world view that neglects the problem of a conscious mind is not a complete science. If physics can accommodate the phenomenon of consciousness, it will alter the philosophical nature of reality as we understand it. Penrose (2005) thinks that it is in the microtubules in the cytoskeletons than the neurons that collective quantum effects are likely to be found. Without it, we cannot find an objective reduction in physics to provide non-computational prerequisite for the phenomenon of consciousness within scientific terms such as quantum coherence.

Consciousness is not restricted to human beings alone. Non-computational prerequisite for consciousness can only occur with a large collection of cells as in the case of a reasonable-sized brain. The world that we know is the world of our conscious perception. Whatever brain activity is responsible for consciousness, it must depend on a physics that lies beyond computational simulation. If we try to make general inferences about the theoretical possibility of a reliable computational model of the brain, we ought to come to terms with the mysteries of quantum theory. The central issue is how the phenomenon of consciousness relates to our scientific world view. Whatever brain activity is responsible for consciousness, it must depend on a physics that lies beyond computational simulations. The world that we know most directly is the world of our conscious perception. Yet, it is the world that we know the least about in any kind of precise scientific terms. There are many classes of mathematical problems that are computationally unsolvable. Why do such precise and profoundly mathematical laws play an important role in the behaviour of physical worlds?  How is that perceiving beings can come out of the physical world? How is that mentality able to create mathematical concepts out of mental model? How is it that consciousness can arise from such seemingly unpromising ingredients of matter as space and time? 

What physical circumstances are appropriate to the phenomenon of consciousness? Science has a long way to develop on this front.  Every one of our conscious brains is woven from subtle physical ingredients that enable us to take advantage of the profound organisation of our mathematically underpinned universe. No clear answers will be possible unless the interrelating features of the three worlds—physical, mental, and platonic. Maybe these are not really three worlds but one—the true nature of which we do not even have a glimpse of at present. 

When George Lakeoff and Mark Johnson (1999) claimed that the mind is embodied, they were arguing that almost all forms of human cognition up to the most abstract reasoning depends on, and makes use of concrete and low-level facilities such as sensor motor systems and emotions. The notion of embodiment rejects the body–mind dualism, and using evidence from neuroscience and network simulations, certain concepts such as colour and spatial relation can be understood through the examination of the process of perception or motor control. Based on research in cognitive psychology and philosophy of language, very few of the categories used by humans are black and white. Most categories are complicated and messy. We cannot think anything, but only what our embodied brains permit. Even mathematics is subject to the human species. The structure of scientific knowledge is not out there, but are within our brains, based on details of our anatomy. Falsifiability is the central problem in the cognitive science of matter—a field that attempts to establish a foundation ontology based on the human cognitive and scientific process.

What is science and how reliable are its findings to capture reality are the questions that trouble us. The mystery of consciousness is not amenable to the methods of science, although persons like Penrose (2005) think that if science can handle non-computational processes, this mystery too can be tackled, and we have to deal with quantum theory where the observer changes the observed by the process of observing. Others like Lakeoff and Johnson (1999) argue that what we think has much to do with our bodies and brain, and this does not necessarily need to be the reality outside of us. Science has advantages in terms of its methodology, but we have to admit that it cannot deal with some phenomena like consciousness. Nanda has to temper her euphoria about the superiority of science, although her removing of the smokescreen of pseudoscience is very valid. The uses of science by those in power to advance their own agenda needs to be understood and contested by civil society.

Pseudoscience masquerading in the name of a nationalist claim of pre-eminence can be thwarted by better education of basic science in our educational institutions. There are well-known examples of Peoples Science in Kerala and Ekalavya in Madhya Pradesh. Knowledge, if kept as a secret preserve, atrophies and does not grow. There will not be continuous renewal. It is only through wide participation and re-questioning established knowledge and the maintenance of freedom of thought and expression can humanity achieve a state of well being. To quote Rajendran (2020): “Science is essentially an end product of human curiosity and a desire to understand the world. Thus, an increasing emphasis on immediate applicability of science should not be allowed to steal the space for curiosity-driven basic science which can be sustained only by direct government spending.” China spends far more than even the United States (US) on science with 17% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). India, on the other hand, earmarks a paltry 0.9% of its GDP on science.

Today, we face climate change. Only if we follow the concept of one world (vasudeiva kutumbakam) that embraces not just humans, but living beings and nature as a united whole can humanity continue its onward journey. 

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