Science — Part 3

Dweep’s comment on Science — Part 2 is worth responding to in a separate post because of the good points he makes. He writes:


I am disappointed in your repeated assertion that the scientific method is uniquely Western. In so doing, you are making an oft-repeated statement that has become accepted fact. Lets, however, apply the scientific method to it.

Feynman, in his 1966 lecture, said in response to the question, “what is science?”:

it is the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past.

Inherent in this definition are two actions – 1) to question what one sees, and 2) to verify through experimentation and observation.

I am not sufficiently informed about other civilizations to comment on their traditions, but can say confidently that India’s tradition of doubt is sufficiently long and varied that your statement cannot be taken as a given. And I say this without specific reference to India’s contributions to the sciences, or the experimentation that such contributions involved. However, by ignoring such contributions and India’s expansive literature in mathematics, astronomy, health sciences, or political science, you do both a grave disservice.

This affinity of Indians to undermine their own intellectual (and scientific) traditions, was pointed out to me by Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination’, (in his book The Argumentative Indian). As he points out, there has been a historical tendency among Western observers to emphasize India’s spiritual traditions, at the cost of the rational. And such characterizations have had a narrowing impact on Indians’ own self-perception. One reason that he mentions is:

There was indeed such an attempt to present what was perceived to be the ‘strong aspects’ of Indian culture, distinguished from the domain, as Chatterjee puts it, ‘where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed’.

But the belief that the West had proved superior is just that – a belief. By repeating it, you perpetuate the same bias that started it, and I challenge you to question it and where your statement comes from. I cannot prove, conclusively, that the ‘scientific method’ was evident in Indian analytical traditions. But I cannot, a priori, accept that it was entirely lacking. Perhaps it was simply an accident of history that the West was the last dominant power and could create such a belief.

Incidently, as books I would suggest both Feynman’s ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’, and Sen’s Argumentative Indian (though I read neither cover-to-cover).

Dweep, you are right of course that simply repeating a falsehood does not elevate it to the truth. Neither does repeated denial of a fact make it less of a fact. My assertion is that the scientific method is a western conception. My assertion is not that only westerners have done science, nor is it my position that Indians (past and present) are not doing science. It is the codification of the method that I am asserting. I would be happy to be corrected — if one can refer me to some work which shows that Indian by the name of ABC has codified what can be called “the scientific method” and is a reasonable subtitute for what is asserted to be the codification of the scientific method as done by the western European thinkers.

Whether or not it is true that Indians “have an affinity to undermine their own intellectual (and scientific) traditions” is an interesting but non-relevant matter in the context of whether non-westerners have effectively codified the scientific method. So also Feynman’s definition of science admits the fact that Indians have made significant contributions to science but leaves the matter of whether Indians have articulated the scientific method entirely up in the air.

About Sen’s point that “there has been a historical tendency among Western observers to emphasize India’s spiritual traditions, at the cost of the rational”: I think that pitching the spiritual against the rational is setting up a false dichotomy. Spiritualism devoid of rational thought is hollow and worth discarding. I do believe that the most exalted of Indian spiritual thought is also deeply rational. Sen is a great intellect and I respectfully disagree with his implicit characterization of the Indian spiritual tradition as being somehow opposed to the rational.

I take justifiable pride in the intellectual tradition of the land of my ancestors. I believe that some of the most profound ideas the human mind has ever contemplated have occured in India. That truth is eternally enduring. Compared to that, the codification of the scientific method pales into insignificance. So my conceding ground to westerners for what I believe they have rightful claim to does not in any sense diminish myself nor does it diminish the accomplishments of the Indians. We have riches more than these.

Author: Atanu Dey


10 thoughts on “Science — Part 3”

  1. Let me add to Atanu’s assertion that the spiritual and rational are not opposed to each other. Traditional Vedantic thought encourages questioning, debate and rationality. One has to go no further than the Upanishads that are presented (in some part if not all, to my limited knowledge) as query-answer-query dialogues.

    Dweep, the assertion that based on current evidence, the West has codified the scientifc method does not take away from the greateness of the scientific endeavours of our forefathers in any way I am sure.

    While this is a digression into my personal philosophical beliefs, let me say that I whole-heartedly agree with Atanu in his submission that some of the most profound of human truths – the understanding that all life is one, is essentially an Indian accomplishment. The depth of philosophical thought that is behind this is staggering and requires more than a lifeltime to fully comprehend.


  2. I agree with Atanu. Joseph Needham, a Cambridge scholar, had asked a question about China, ” Why was it that China, which had led the world in navigation methods (Chinese ships had reached East Africa, a full 50 years before the Portuguese), use of gunpowder, magnetic compasses, paper, etc failed to be at the forefront of the industrial revolution when it happened? One of his conclusions was that the West, starting with Galileo, had stumbled upon and ‘discovered the process of discovery’. This gave them a powerful tool which ensured replicability of the process many times over in different fields.There were other theories, of course, to explain why the Chinese fell behind, but the absence of the scientific method is usually the strongest argument.

    Same is true of India. We can’t cite a few Aryabhattas and claim that we were steeped in scientific tradition.It is one thing to ask philosophical questions and another to engage in measurements,systematic observation and maintenance of records that form part of the scientific method.


  3. It’s amusing to see people clogged by patriotic fervour. Scientific method is indeed a western product ! But I don’t credit aristotle or plato with that. It is a discovery made during the Renaissance age. It is a parcel of what scholars term as “the age of enlightenment”. This “age of enlightenment” has escaped India and China, along with the industrial revolution.

    Hi Raj
    Please don’t believe Mr. Joseph Needham. Industrial Revolution has nothing to do with the scientific method. It is primarily due to the invention of the spinning yarn. Because of the prospects of mass production, the western countries got new ideas about colonization (which sparked further industrialization).

    Unlike the Europeans, the chinese (or the phonecians, or the Vikings, or the Arabs, or even the Indians) didn’t have this ideology of using a colony as a dumpyard of surplus produce. Just because they didn’t discover surplus produce yet. The English were the first to discover it.


  4. Just read all the three parts. Could not agree more with the observation.

    Nothing I read here seems to undermine the eastern contribution to science, but yes, science as a methodical study is nodoubt a contribution of western civilization.

    We have had our Aryabhattas, Barahmihir, bhaskaracharyas, but the problem is they came at a gap of centuries from each other. There are sporadic flashes of brilliance spreading across a millennium and half but where was the continuity of the methodical exploration?

    After 1000 AD scientific explorations were almost dead in east. When the west was fast developing their century old university systems then we were suffering in a scientifically dark age ( Nalanda and taxila both of them were long dead by then and neither ever explored science). The methodical study of science in India atleast was started under the western influence only, in early 19th century.


  5. Hi,
    Sorry if this has been posted before, but this article seems to be very relevant. I will quote some relevant parts —
    “From 1000 B.C to the 4th C A.D (also described as India’s rationalistic period) treatises in astronomy, mathematics, logic, medicine and linguistics were produced. The philosophers of the Sankhya school, the Nyaya-Vaisesika schools and early Jain and Buddhist scholars made substantial contributions to the growth of science and learning. Advances in the applied sciences like metallurgy, textile production and dyeing were also made.

    In particular, the rational period produced some of the most fascinating series of debates on what constitutes the “scientific method”: How does one separate our sensory perceptions from dreams and hallucinations? When does an observation of reality become accepted as fact, and as scientific truth? How should the principles of inductive and deductive logic be developed and applied? How does one evaluate a hypothesis for it’s scientific merit? What is a valid inference? What constitutes a scientific proof?


  6. Interesting discussion Atanu.

    I think the scientific method does provide an understanding of why the west has gone ahead in terms of development. It answers for me many of the questions on why even though we had brilliance it did not convert itself into development.

    Incidently, in a second-hand book store in Adelaide, I came across a book on Francis Bacon and the scientific method.

    He says

    “There are and can exist but two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one hurries on rapidly from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms; and from them as principles and their supposed indisputable truth derives and discovers the intermediate axioms. This is the way now in use. The other constructs its axioms from the senses and particulars, by ascending continually and gradually, till it finally arrives at the most general axioms, which is the true but unattempted way.”


  7. Dear Atanu,

    This comment may be bit dated and I had drafted it against your earlier post on science.

    I agree with you that scientific method was a giant leap made by humanity. It has facilitated an exponential growth (relative to earlier centuries) in knowledge and its translation to technology. Technology in turn has yielded major productivity gains. Thanks to those gains humanity can now move into services dominated world.

    I would like to know who is credited with the codification of the method itself. Did the method evolve after the pace of experimentation and inquiry gathered momentum and one needed a device to separate genuine claims of discovery from bogus ones?

    I also agree with little Ram on the fundamental difference between natural science and social science. Technology which is a derivative of natural science can enhance (but also disrupt) our lives. But the social sciences are equally or more relevant to us because throughout the world improvements are needed in social sectors including politics and economy.

    Dweep has argued that scientific method as we know it now could possibly have existed in ancient India. If so, it begs a question: why did it not spur rapid development as happened much later in Europe? Or is it possible that it was not scientific method but some social factors (rise of merchant class relative to landed gentry) including economic incentives that spurred the rapid progress? Science itself is one level removed from application. Technology is a more visible form of science to layman and can be a strong economic motivation. May be the hunger for technological progress in Europe spurred science rather than other way around?



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