Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, India 411007
One of the remarkable features of our way of understanding things is that profounder it is more ambiguous is its perception. Science is no exception to this rule. This perhaps happens because we seek completeness as well in profoundity. Completeness is asymptotically approachable to an arbitrarily close extent in a limiting manner but never attainable, is the most primary law of the Nature about nature of the Nature. We are thus forced to accept certain degree of ambiguity and incompleteness.
In this essay, I would, within the above stated universal constraint and added to that the severe limitations of my own understanding and perception, attempt to discuss a workable view of science as regards to what it is and how it shapes our life and what kind of overall vision it promotes. Let me at the outset say that it is a very complex and involved issue and hence it would be rather a tentative and novice attempt to outline the question at a very elementary and broader level.
What is Science and How it works?
Let us begin at the very beginning. What do we understand by science? In its broadest sense, it is a method of probing the Nature/Universe which includes everything without exception. The distinguishing feature of the method is that the inference of an experiment/observation must be independent of the observer and its location in space and time. The driving force and the spirit of science is: nothing must be taken on faith and every fact has to be perpetually verified. In this sense, scientific facts are never final because there is always a window open for change. This skepticism is the greatest strength of this method.
How science works is, that we observe natural phenomena, gather together imperical facts and then from them we attempt to seek out a general pattern which gives rise to a general law or principle. Now this law is to be applied to all the situations and to be verified. Then a conceptual and axiomatic framework is built on, which is termed as a theory. It prescribes a general behaviour, for instance Newton's theory of gravity prescribes gravitational law of attraction between bodies, these bodies could be anything, sun, earth, ball, stone, you and I as well as stars and galaxies. The law of attraction is the same, its strength diminishing with inverse square of the distance separating the bodies. So long as there is no conflict between the observation and what the theory predicts, the theory stays. No sooner there occurs even one contradiction which is established without any reasonable degree of doubt, the theory has to be modified or a new theory has to be sought.
Based on the known facts, we make hypothesis/image for the unknown and then devise theoretical as well as laboratory experiments to test it. Mind you, this projection is not arbitrary but on the contrary quite guided by what is known, and it is the known that defines its sphere of plausibility. Hypothesis to be probed must lie within this sphere else it would not be a scientific enquiry. This is how our journey of probing the Nature progresses by the method of science. Modern Organised Science Science is born ever since humans acquired the faculty of wonder and curiosity. This is at the root of knowing things. The urge for enquiry and getting answer for it is also satisfying and pleasure giving. Ever since then, woman has been probing Nature. The scientific method emerged from collating and correlating the imperical facts. The knowledge resource was based on observation of natural phenomena like change of seasons, eclipses, animal and plant life around.
Much of the ancient technology was perhaps developed by trial and error method of experimentation. One can attain great heights by this method over a long period of time but it does not evolve into a science in the modern sense. In the absence of clear understanding, we do go by imperical knowledge as is very often the case in medicine in good measure. The dictum of science is not only to correlate information but also to understand the cause effect relationship and to explain the phenomena. I would say this aspect was perhaps brought into focus only in the modern times which could be representatively be identified with Newton.
It was a sheer magic when a simple mathematical calculation, which a school boy does today in his studies, done on a piece of paper can explain motion of the planets far out in the sky around the sun. This was for the first time the strength and power of the scientific method was demonstrated so dramatically. By its universal character, Newton's law of gravitation synthesized the interaction between all bodies and it became applicable in all kinds of situations. One of the direct applications is that we could now put artificial human made things in the sky which move around like other heavenly bodies. This is a remarkable feat of scientific method.
In contrast, the motion of planets was known in the empirical sense, much earlier by the calendar makers and they were able to predict the correct dates for occurrence of eclipses. But they could not even in principle (in thought) have put a satellite out in the space.
Interaction with Society
Scientific discoveries, apart from expanding our horizons of knowledge of Nature, lead to technology and consequently to industrial revolution which had far reaching global impact. It would be not unfair to say that it prompted a capitalistic pattern of economy and society. Because the technology led to massive production of goods by machines, which were free of fatigue of labour in contrast to humans, at one place. All this could be controlled by one or few people. The production was enormously out of proportion to local demand. A new colonial world had to be created which resulted into the industrialized world being able to suck in the wealth from far and wide and could control lives of people in different continents.
This is not to say that pre-industrial era was in anyway socialistic but there was a phase transition in terms of proportion and extent of accumulation and exploitation because the human labour had physical limitations. Big corporations, which were the predecessor to the today's multinationals, cropped up. Recall that it was first the East India Company that had come to India. Of course the state and business were and continue to be synonymous.
With science being realized as a powerful tool for industrial advancement as well as for weapons, it is hardly surprising that this activity could not be left in its pure form of truth seeking and knowledge enhancing. It came under the control of both the state and the corporation (so far as they refer to science in the context under discussion there is no reason to distinguish between them because both are controlling and strangulating agencies).
Undoubtedly the modern science went through a phase transition marked by the atomic bomb. It signaled the advent of big science, big in every sense. Its organization became big and centralized, it required big money which has to be gotten from the state and the corporation, and above all this, the results coming out could have wide and far reaching effect and consequence on people and world as a whole. It is for the first time one has seriously to assess a scientific project on the ground of its larger impact and then question whether it is proper, right or moral to go ahead?
For instance the human genome map, which gives the information about genetic structure of a person, could be exploited to cause immense social disaster. Of course it has very beneficial aspects in combating certain genetic disorders. But before anything else happens, the insurance companies are seeking out genome maps so that they can tailor their premiums for individuals. We all say that this would not be given to them. Have we ever succeeded in keeping any information away from someone who is rich and strong? This is the real question of practical dharma for all consensious scientists, and there are many such questions.
Having said all this, the true scientific spirit does however in good measure remain of truth seeking, wonder and understanding the Nature. This is what leads to the fundamental discoveries. A few profound amongst them have great impact in terms of enlightenment and enhancement of our overall view of the things and the world. Isn't this a great advance in the world view when we realized that we are not at the centre of the Universe but are instead sitting on an ordinary planet orbitting around an ordinary star? There are billions and billions of such stars in the Universe and there is nothing special and distinguishing about our sun and earth?
Equally important is the realization following Einstein that we live in a four dimensional Universe which perhaps had its beginning in hot big-bang explosion some 15-20 billion years ago. The discoveries like this undoubtedly have much wider philosophical and world view shaping impact on the society.
The present century was dominated by the great advances in the physical sciences, and it is now the turn of the biological sciences which are gearing up to make big discoveries. That would certainly have far reaching impact. I believe that the next millennium would see coming together of science and social sciences in taking up the pursuit of much more complex systems and problems. That would lead to much profounder truths and knowledge which would have great social and cultural impact.
One might ask, does science promote a certain kind of social values and vision? On the surface, it appears that it is only a method which is perhaps socially neutral. Scientific method and knowledge could be applied in a benign and liberating way as well as in a harmful and controlling manner. A deeper reflection prompts the question, how do the social values come to stay? Do the natural phenomena and the nature of things not play the determining role? For instance, birth and death of man is one of the most important natural phenomenon. It certainly has great social impact. By the same token, the method by which we understand the Nature should also have some influence on our overall social bearing. It is in this context, the question attains meaning and significance.
Though the knowledge and realization of our insignificant position in the Universe should have a sobering and humbling effect. It should inspire and induce a sense of camaraderie and empathy. On the other hand, we have also made great advances in technology, for example, putting up a satellite in space, changing the natural course of rivers, tailoring and genetically enginnering desired live products and so on. This is almost creating an alternate Nature and being conscious of this capability is certainly a big ego booster. If this does not induce extreme arrogance and self projection of the Creator proportion, then it would not be like a human.
Here are thus the two contradicting attitudes and trends science and technology seem to promote. The big question is which one gets the better of us? This is the key question. In addressing it, we have to fall back upon all the wisdom and sagacity we have inherited over the entire human history as well as the one prompted by the conscious response to these challenges.
Scientific method has certain emulatable aspects. For instance, it does not distinguish between particulars, and all its statements are universal, meaning applicable to all things and all situations. The social projection of this feature would be equality and democracy promoting. If one has to make a distinction, then it must be objectively justified giving proper reasons. The process of justification requires assessment and measure of things. Science provides the most reliable measures because they are objective and quantitative. Admittedly, in the present state of our development, it may not be possible to have the quantitative measure for all situations, particularly social, but this is the direction we have to follow.
That is to call for a good rational and objective measure in all social interactions should be raised to the level of a value. I would strongly argue for it being accepted as the new social value. This will bring about a good degree of thruthfulness, solidity, genuineness and objectivity into our social interactions and perceptions which ofetn tend to be coloured by variety of extraneous considerations that are often non-benign. As a matter of fact, there is an urgent need in the social sphere to measure acceptable and unacceptable on an objective framework.
Of course, all this is in harmony with the scientific spirit and method which can at best be promoting the view but certainly not compelling. Adoption of scientific method into social life comes at the secondary stage of development. At the primary level, it is the technology that influences our lives by creating physical comfort. It is the technology's discipline that we first learn to respect. For instance, traffic rules on the highways. We have to adopt technology driven organisation of our life. I would believe that after this primary level of change, the secondary level of adoption creeps in rather unconsciously. It is this which ultimately shapes our social perception. Naturally, it is a very slow process. It has now after 300 years become noticable in the developed world. Their social interactions are more rational than emotional.This is not to argue against the empathy in social interaction but only an advocacy for rational measure of things social.
Challenge and Opportunity
The modern science gave rise to big things, big organizations, big corporations, big machines, big dams, big bombs, and so on. Big means concentration and centralization leading to displacement of people from their enviorns. All this meant big social change which was not peace and harmony enhancing. We have now reached a level where things are turning small and there is reductionism on the other plane, vanishing of distance in space and time through the revolution in information technology and all gadgets are going smaller. The present day production unit has come down to homes from the machine shop, one does not have to travel in crowded trains to catch the 7 O'clock syron. Production could be dispersed over a large area. People do not have to leave their traditional and natural enviorns. All this is quite attainable in today's technology.
The use of technology always poses serious question of how much? It cuts down labour, distance and time and gives one more leisure. One of the hardest things is to spend leisure meaningfully and creatively. We are yet far away from a technology that can instantly make one ultra creative. When this hard fact is not paid due heed, it will give rise to serious social problems. The most tecchnologically advanced society is the most violent and disharmonious. School children have become trigger happy killing their fellow students much for fun and heck of it. This is because the schools and homes are unable to occupy young children with meaningful activity. Parents have no time for them, TV is the only companion which does pour out blood so very frequently for the child to feel used to it.
The key seems to be that things that are inherited or gotten without effort can have no meaning, and hence to give meaning to life work is essential. We must tailor our use of technology accordingly. That means along side technological development, we must educate people to develop intellectually to occupy themselves purposefully in their leisure. The golden guiding principle is: Adopt technology only upto the extent that it offers meaningful occupation to all both at work as well as at leisure. For the latter, we must invest equally if not more, strongly in the education and enlightment process. This must be taken as the integral ingradient of the development process.
In view of the immense social impact the results obtained in the laboratories and observatories could have, today's scientists are bestowed with a great responsibility of assessing their research projects on a wider canvass than purely limited to their narrow discipline of study. It is therefore very important for scientists to be alert and well informed about the overall socio-political enviorment and the impact their studies could have on the wider canvas. Scientist must, as a practitioner of scientific method and responsible member of a learned community, take active part in discourses on wider issues of science and society. This must become a part of the scientific ethics.
If we honestly wish to march towards a hormonious, peaceful and just society, science provides an honest and objective method for it. It is possible to propagate a new development paradigm which rares sustenance, harmony and peace. Particularly with the dispersed mode of production, there would be no large scale displacement. What is required is the proper orientation of the train of development.
India is at the threshold of great developmental opportunity. We still have our social empathy intact from the pre-modern era, which we need not have to destroy as the western world had to. We could instead jump straight into the present day of dispersed production system. This would be a great step forward. What we require is a wise, enlightened and committed leadership.
The recent example of software engineers, who are today world leaders, could serve as a good eye opener in the context of immense latent potential the country has. We could from the pre-modern phase tunnel through retaining the social empathy and concern to the present day.
Science in its true spirit promotes measure of things and an honest and objective enquiry into everything. It is upto people's ability to emulate it in their living and social interactions. This would be the challenge as well as opportunity in the new millennium.