Scientific Positivity

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RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

Notwithstanding our ‘clash,’ at times, with orthodoxy, there’s a huge transformation of position in our minds — from the old to the modern. This has been engineered by our progress in science. Put simply, science’s success in explaining and predicting our natural world has now come to stay, be it the East or West. Here’s why: René Descartes originally thought he’d found a rational basis for science, based on his arguments for his own existence and the reality of god. Likewise, Sir Isaac Newton’s advances in physics founded on inductive logic were, at one time, just as remarkably significant to Enlightenment philosophers.  Even Immanuel Kant thought of Newton’s laws as true to pure reason. This explains why the great man also initiated a dualistic view of our Universe a la the Indian philosopher Sri Madhvacárya. That human beings live in a world of rationality, autonomy and morality, even as our materialistic Universe gets quantified in terms of both cause and effect.

Auguste Comte pushed the whole idea vigorously, no less. He said that human thought developed from the mythical, spiritual and metaphysical planes, characterised by the orderly assortment of experiential facts. He suggested that such ‘Positivist’ methods, as they are called, lead to the study of our social order and also culture. He strongly argued that our knowledge of facts could be explained better by using methods similar to the natural sciences. Karl Popper, however, emerged a strong critic of inductive judgment. All inductive evidence, he said, was restricted, because we do not view the Universe at all times and in all places. “We are, not justified, therefore, in making a general rule from this observation of particulars.” Popper did not also fancy the empiricist idea that one employs to independently examine our world. He, therefore, offered an ‘alternative’ — the scientific mode of falsification.

Thomas Kuhn was no less critical of the straightforward picture that philosophers used to ‘lighten-up’ science. He looked at the saga of science and argued that science does not just progress by stages, based upon impartial observations. Scientists, he said, have a worldview, or ‘hypothesis.’ He suggested that the epitome of Newton’s mechanical Universe was quite unlike the form of Albert Einstein’s relativistic Universe — each model being a wholesome scrutiny of the world, rather than just objective explanation. Kuhn further thought that the history of science was affected by revolutions in scientific points-of-view. Scientists, he said, acknowledged the prevailing view until flaws surface. They would, thereafter, he noted, embark to probe at the foundation of the benchmark itself, following which new theories emerged to confront the fundamental theory. Eventually, one of these new theories becomes accepted as a fresh application. This, in other words, means the superiority of our modern scientific method cannot be implied. Why? Because, for any revolutionary scientific knowledge to advance, we cannot predict what shape future knowledge would take. This also signifies the fact that we should not close, or isolate, ourselves with just one shared, even accepted, method of acquiring knowledge.

When Einstein’s theory of relativity unseated the old Newtonian model, it led to a change of situation among philosophers. It also stirred several great minds and scientists to understand one big fundamental fact — that the essentialities of scientific understanding were not a fixed, inflexible set of natural laws. Rather, they were models, or interpretations, of phenomena — just as dependent on the community as the nature of reality, as we all know it. Put in context, scientific explanation today may no longer be looked upon as objective and absolute. Why? Because, at the borders of science, there are any number of new prototypes that are continually emerging to ‘test’ present standards. The implication: they will all only expand for our good. Or, for the better — whichever way you look at it.

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