Philosophy of Science in the East and the West

Philosophy of Science in the East and the West – K.Satyadeva Prasad


Science as a way of observing nature and experimenting is a very old human activity. What is called modern science is understood by most people as the product of Europe of past two or three centuries.

It is a fact that many older civilizations like India, China, Egypt and Greece made notable contributions to the field of science and technology. Some of the older civilizations like Egypt and Greece are no more extant. Some, like India, and to a very limited extent China, have retained their identity and continuity in science over the millennia. In these countries, modern science and traditional science live side by side. Of course, there is a lot of overlapping, mutual influence and interdependence among the two systems. But it is an undeniable fact that we find them as two distinct scientific systems.

Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate and meaningful to talk of Indian Traditional Science as distinct from the ‘modern science’ born in the west. Apart from the surface differences, there are other deeper, conceptual, epistemological differences between the two differences. These deeper differences are not discussed in the day to day science. Hence they are not familiar to many. But they are not less important on that count. In fact, such differences assume great significance while assessing the total long term impact of a particular scientific system on the society. Secondly, without understanding the basic difference in the western and the Indian scientific world views, we cannot discuss the history of Indian science in purposeful and meaningful  manner, a manner that is relevant to our modern needs and aspirations.

Science is Culture Specific and Value Based

Science, like any other human activity, is a part of the total cultural system where it takes shape. Culture denotes a definite outlook to man and nature. Different cultures produced different sciences. Science, since its birth, has been guided by different value systems which are specific to different cultures.

The widely prevalent belief that science is neutral to all values and value judgments may be true at the surface of science practice but not at its deeper reaches. There science is as much a product of the deeper culture traits of the society as any other activity. All the stalwarts of  science are fully aware of this crucial but least known fact which has far reaching implications. Albert Einstein has this to say on this point.

“In the attempt to achieve a conceptual formulation of the confusingly immense body of observational data, the scientist makes use of a whole arsenal of concepts, which he imbibed practically with his mother’s milk, and seldom if ever is he aware of the eternally problematic character of his concepts. He used this conceptual material, or speaking more exactly, these conceptual tools of thought, as something obviously, immutably given; something having an objective value of truth which is hardly ever, and in any case not seriously, to be doubted…in the interests of science it is necessary over and over again to engage in the critique of these fundamental concepts, in order that we may not unconsciously be ruled by them. This becomes evident especially in those situations involving development of ideas in which consistent use of the fundamental concept leads to paradoxes difficult to resolve.” (Einstein’s Introduction to Max Jammer’s book, Concepts of Space, Harward, 1954).

Judeo-Christian Influence on Modern Science 

Einstein was writing the above lines in a book which traces the modern scientific concept of ‘space’ to the christian and Cabalistic(Jewish) traditions. These traditions equate space with God. All the three Semitic cultures- Judaism, christianity and islam share this view. When Newton believed that space and god were synonymous he was only repeating this old Semitic belief. (For Newton’s conception of space, see ‘Matter and Activity by Mc Mullen and E. Lee, University of Notre Dame Press, 1978). Newton also affirmed that not to believe that the creationist god of christianity was responsible for all actions was atheistic, while Leibnitz believed that it was ‘mean’ to think that His world was so imperfect as to demand such responsibility.

Therefore it is clear that the Judeo-christian world view heavily influenced the western scientific thought. The basic categories of western christian culture permeated the conceptual framework of modern science like the limits of reason, nature of congnition, man-nature relationship etc.

To us it may come as a surprise because men like Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei revolted against the christian dogma. One wonders as to how christian, jewish beliefs entered modern scientific thought in spite of such bitter rivalry between science and the church. The answer is simple. Men like Copernicus revolted against specific christian beliefs and succeeded in outgrowing such beliefs. But none of them could challenge and topple the main edifice of christian dogma. It was left intact and went on producing newer superstitions and episodes of oppression and continued to influence the minds of western scientists and thinkers till date. A study of the evolution of the concepts of western science in the historical perspective  reveals many interesting facts. Many researchers laid bare the deleterious influence of christian beliefs on science. Today we are able to see the full impact of that negative influence especially in the present global ecological crisis.

Modern Science and Ecological Crisis  

Theodore Roszak made a special study, among other things, of the conceptual foundations of modern science under the sponsorship of Guggenheim Foundation, USA. He concludes that there is a critical relationship between our environmental bad habits and the devolution of the scientific tradition. The following discussion of the origin of western scientific view of man-nature relationship and its impact on environment is substantially based on Roszak’s path breaking thesis developed in his book ’Where the Wasteland Ends’ (Doubleday Anchor, NY, 1972).

It is the scientific community that has provided us with the image of nature that invited the rape of nature with the sensibility that has licensed it. It is not after all the normal thing for people to ruin their environment. It is extraordinary and requires extraordinary incitement.

What lies behind the prolonged ignorance of ecological awareness in the west is that Judeo-christian estrangement from nature got absorbed into the psychology of scientific knowledge and thereby found a new epistemological dignity. The kind of objective knowing so much overemphasized by western philosophers from Francis Bacon to Rene Descartes is nothing but alienated knowing; and alienated knowing is, sooner or later, ecologically disastrous knowing.

When Bacon first called upon mankind “to unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire”, when Descartes exhorted mankind to aggressively assert itself against nature as “lords and possessors”, they were actually laying the psychological foundations for a cult of rapacity backed by science. But then their arrogance was not recognized as a gospel of rape of nature. In a few generations the scale of applied science has become global and more than enough to reveal the true implications of the scientific gospel of rapacity. Just as infinitesimal blemishes in a photograph may only become prominent when the picture is sufficiently enlarged, so the vastness of contemporary technical enterprise has magnified the innermost meaning of the scientific world view and its full ecological ignorance. We now deal in a technology that alters the halo-meters of entire continents and threatens to murder the flora and fauna of whole oceans. We in India dreaming of achieving the level of scientific and technological expertise of the west may well understand the ideological underpinnings of western science before we embark on wholesale adoption of western scientific model.

Modern Science Inherits its Flawed View of Nature from Christianity

Christianity’s hatred for idolatry led to the ban on mystic, imaginative thinking habits. The fourth century christian polemicist Lactantius in his Divine Institutes systematically attacks the supposed divinity of rivers, mountains, plants, beasts etc. Obviously none of these are god, he concludes, nor is nature as a whole to be regarded as god. Rather nature is lesser object created by god and existing wholly apart from him.

“Therefore the world is neither God, nor living, if it has been made; for a living creature is not made, but born; and if it has been built, it has been built as a house or a ship is built. Therefore there is a builder of the world, even God; and the world which has been made is distinct from him who made it…”

Thus nature is pronounced dead and desacralized. Compare this with the Indian view of nature which asserts that nature embodies god and man is an inseparable part of nature. Rudra Suktam of Yajurveda describes the vegetation and animals as Rudra himself: You are the plant, you are the animals…(Oshadhayah cha me, pasavaah cha me…).

But where does Lactantius locate man? He concludes that man is existentially outside nature and only temporarily in residence during his mortal life.

“Man is not a part of the world, in the same manner as a limb is a part of the body”.

Out of this fateful ontology emerges the ultimate conclusion that there is nothing in the world that is sacred or companionable, a world disenchanted in root and branch into which man has intruded like a cosmic freak.

Lynn White(Jr) in his widely discussed and referenced paper ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ writes- “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen..By destroying pagan animism christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference.”

Thus the divide between man and nature is complete. From this great divide emerges the psychological traits of domination and exploitation of nature which is so well expressed by men like Bacon and Descartes. This is the sort of psychology of western science that led to the present day ecological crisis and the threat of thermo-nuclear war, in the name of science backed progress. It is totally incorrect to brush aside the ecocide sanctioned and perpetrated under the auspices of modern science as the inevitable price of progress. True progress need not entail so much devastation. What we see today is the outcome of a wrong psychology of progress and abundance based on a flawed philosophy of nature and man. It is equally true that wrong psychology has created a host of other evils like global tensions and struggle for dominance. The proof, if proof is needed at all, is in the fact that the two world wars were initiated and fought by the christian nations for global hegemony. That they were christian wars was openly admitted by no less person than Winston Churchill, the wartime British Prime Minister himself.

Thus what passes for modern science is not only inspired by a wrong world view but it also blinds us to alternative world views. It has a tendency to systematically disparage alternative views for the past two centuries. Monopoly of truth, claimed and asserted by Christianity leaves its stamp on modern science when it claims the sole custodianship of man’s sanity and worldly wisdom.

Since Independence, we have not only tried hard to import the western model of scientific development but also its psychological equipage lock, stock and barrel. This is a major stumbling block in the study and documentation of Indian history of science.

Concept of Reality in the Indian Tradition and Its Bearing on Science

It is clear from the above discussion that the Judeo-christian elements in the modern(western) scientific world view make it eco-cidal and and war-prone. As already said the basic ideas on which a scientific system is built are not apparent in the day to day practice, but subtly determine the direction and practical outcome of that system in the long run. In this context we have to examine the Indian scientific tradition to identify the major principles that underlie its foundations and see how it differs from the western scientific tradition.

The basic difference lies in the conception of Reality adopted by western and Indian scientific traditions. The Reality concept embodies the idea and understanding of what is meant by total reality in a particular system. It includes among other things, the concept of nature, man and his relation to nature.

We have already dealt with the concept of nature inherited by modern science. Now we shall briefly discuss the Indian concept of Reality and the role of nature and man within the ambit of that total reality.

Vedas are the repository of Indian wisdom. They explicate the one Absolute, highest Reality which goes by different names and forms. The Rigveda declares ‘ekam viprah bahudha vadanti..’. This seminal concept of reality is also the highest form of truth which finds its expression in the Indian cosmology, metaphysics, arts, theology and sciences. It bears its distinct mark on all these subjects.

Reality Concept in Indian Cosmology

Indian cosmology admits five primary categories of nature called Pancha Mahabuhtas. They are earth, water, light, air and sky (cipher). The traditional formula is ‘prithivyapastejovayurakasaat’. The fifth category akasa or sky is also described as nothingness for want of better term. Amarakosa gives the synonyms of akasa as- akasam, gaganam, sunyam…It is also described in one of Acharya Shankara’s commentaries as ‘avakasa pradatru akasah’- that which provides scope or space or chance is akasa. In scientific terms it can be translated as the ‘vast potential’.

Various schools of Indian metaphysics called Darshanas conceived this sunyam or ‘nothingness’ in the clearest manner possible, assigned it a name, form and properties. They included it in the operational definition of Reality. Thus they brought the ‘nothingness’ into the regular intellectual, and through it, into the scientific discourse. The concept of Reality occurs in all Astika Darshanas with different names. It is called Adrushtam in Mimamsa, Purusha in Samkhya, Brahman in Advaita Vedanta and so on. Indian thinkers assigned certain qualities to the vast Reality which is the source of all possibilities and yet its full nature remains outside mind’s grasp. This is somewhat akin to the ultimate nature of matter which will remain outside the grasp of science forever. It is described as nameless, formless, part-less and so on, from the negative point of view. It is whole, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and so on, on the positive side.

On the lines of above concept of Reality, the Indian cosmology defined its fifth element. The ultimate nature of the fifth element Akasa, like that of Reality, remains forever outside the grasp of man. Man, with all his sophisticated tools of observation has not exhausted even a fraction of  nature’s secrets. What is known to man through science is a miniscule part of nature’s workings. Therefore not only what is known about nature, but also what remains unknown is of crucial importance. The more precisely this unknown or ‘womb of future knowledge’ (which is the abode of all future possibilities) is defined, the more effective it will be for practical use. To our superficial understanding the unknown may appear as nothingness, but it is not so. The Indian metaphysics recognized this crucial fact and expressed it in the twin descriptive terms sunyam(nothingness) and avakasam(possibility). These terms show that this nothingness is not the absence of something but the presence of everything in a potential state. As already said akasa also means avakasa which means potential.

This is the greatest achievement of the Indian thinkers which is seldom recognized. To conceive of nothingness(the Absolute) as a physical category and include it in man’s mental calculus is a great forward leap in scientific thinking. Not only that but they assigned a name, form and properties in a meaningful and measurable and even quantifiable manner which is nothing short of a miracle. Yet, the crude materialists like Lokayatas and Marxists along with the votaries of mechanistic sciences criticized the Indian concept of Reality as Illusion or Maya. But the practical implications of this momentous discovery are immense and varied. Only recently, with the advent of relativistic and quantum physics, consciousness studies and cognitive science we are able to grasp the true significance of the Indian concept of Reality.

Following is an account of some of the scientific applications of the concept of ‘nothingness’ or the ‘vast potential’ which evolved out of the Indian Reality principle:

Mathematics and the Absolute

Different branches of Indian science laid selective emphasis on some chosen features of the Absolute Reality and made important discoveries. One such instance was the discovery of the zero sign in mathematics. discovery of zero sign is rightly considered as a watershed in the history of science. Zero is universally recognized as the product of Hindu genius. The strong influence exercised by the Indian Reality Principle is nowhere clearer than in the discovery of zero.

The zero sign existed in India, as per our present knowledge of the past, at the time of Pingala, who authored a work on prosody by the name chandas sutras sometime around 200 B.C.E. The significance of the zero mark to the development of mathematics is inestimable. And mathematics is rightly considered as the language of science. If today mathematics is a well developed science and in turn contributes to the growth of other sciences, it is because of the revolutionizing power of zero.

Prof G.B.Halstead, the historian of mathematics aptly described the true significance of zero.

“The importance of the creation of zero mark can never be exaggerated. This giving to airy nothing, not merely local habitation and a name, a picture, a symbol but helpful power, is the characteristic of Hindu race whence it sprang. It is like coining the Nirvana into dynamos. No single mathematical creation has been more potent for the general on-go of intelligence and power.” (Quoted in the History of Ancient Indian Mathematics by Dr. C. N. Srinivasa Iyengar, World Press, Calcutta, 1967, page 5).

The descriptive terms applied to zero, namely, airy nothing having a local habitation, name, picture, symbol and helpful power fit exactly to the Indian Concept of Absolute Reality. In fact, zero can be called as the ‘Mathematician’s Brahman’.

Zero by itself has no value just as the Absolute has no value in the sense that it cannot be grasped directly with our senses. Zero acquires value once it is placed in relation to other numerals. Similarly, the Absolute can be of mundane value only when it is placed in relation to various upadhis or adjuncts.

Even though zero has no value of its own, it imparts value to the other numerals. Because of this mystical property, it occupies a unique place in mathematics. So also, the Absolute has no name and form, and hence no mundane value as such. But everything mundane acquires profound significance once infused with the awareness of the Absolute, that is, viewed with a Brahman consciousness.

To a person imbued with Brahman consciousness, the ordinary things around him acquire deeper, unifying significance. His relations with his fellow human beings and his understanding of the material surroundings undergo qualitative change. They are promoted to a different order. The social, economic, political and religious and even scientific institutions created by the men with such higher awareness exude the aura of the Absolute and are of better quality than the purely mundane minded individuals, however talented they may be. Examples of such men are Dirghatamasa, the Vedic astronomer; Baudhayana, the Vedic Sulba mathematician; Manu, the law-giver; Sushruta, the surgeon par excellence; Charaka, the great physician; Kautilya, the political scientist; down to J.C.Bose, Sri Aurobindo and Gandhi. Take any field, you will find the stamp of the one great truth Ekam Sat…which is the operational description of the Absolute.

Ayurveda and the Absolute

Ayurvedic principles are based on the Pancha Maha Bhuta Theory and the Indian conception of nature as the product of the Absolute existence. Man is an organic part of the Prakriti (roughly equivalent to what the scientist calls nature). Prakriti is the devolved aspect of the Absolute Reality. All that is a part of prakriti is subject to gunas or natural law. Out of this set of fundamental laws, Ayurveda evolved.

Living according to the rhythm of nature is the best way to preserve health and longevity. Hence the name Ayurveda, which means the science of life, not science of medicine. Because of its close relation to the knowledge of veda, Ayurveda is considered as Upa-Veda or subsidiary veda.  Veda is the repository of the highest Truth which is Reality. The subject which deals with the knowledge of life as part of the total truth and man as part of the total reality is aptly called upa-veda.

Besides the pancha-bhuta theory, the other vedic principles involved in Ayurveda are the concept of Prana or life force which has no material form but forms the essence of every living being. The Prana partakes many features of the Absolute. Similarly the tri-dhatu theory also has its basis in the reality principle.

End of article

This article was first published in Bharatiya Pragna – Jan – Mar 1997


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