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.
Categories: Science and India