Main Logo

Sunday 11 December 2011

On so called scientific knowledge – IX

Is there a method which is unique to western science? There have been philosophers of science who had claimed that the so called experimental method is used in western science, and according to the old scientific method the scientists investigated with an open mind and then observed or experimented (the so called controlled experiments were a later addition) as the case may be and then came up with a hypotheses to understand the experimental data. Having formulated a hypothesis the scientists were supposed to deduce results from it and then carry out more experiments (observations) in order to ascertain that the deduced results were in conformity with the observed. The theorists of the experimental method claimed that if the observed were in agreement with the deductions then the hypotheses was promoted to the status of a theory or discarded if there was no agreement between the deductions and the observations.

The essence of the so called scientific method was testing hypotheses with observations or experiments. It was said that Galileo introduced the experimental method and showed that objects fall with the same acceleration to the ground. Before Galileo, Aristotle reigned supreme and the latter’s theory was that the heavier objects fell to the ground quicker than the lighter objects. Apparently it was the negation of this theory (hypothesis) that Galileo had tested in Pisa where he is supposed to have dropped simultaneously two objects with unequal masses from the same height and showed that the objects reached the ground at the same time. According to Aristotle the heavier mass would have fallen to the ground before the lighter object.

It is very often assumed that Aristotle had come to the conclusion that the heavier object reached the ground before the lighter object without making any observations. It is as if Aristotle had just theorised or even speculated without appealing to any observations and his theory had no so called scientific or experimental basis. However, I am of the opinion that Aristotle would have arrived at his theory only after observing at least a few cases where the heavier body reached the ground before the lighter body. If one were to drop a feather and a stone from the same height one would observe that the stone come down to earth before the feather. Aristotle would have arrived at his theory after observing this phenomenon though he most probably did not carry out any experiment to establish the theory. What Aristotle did not mention was that the “heavier” objects fell to the ground quicker than the “lighter” objects in air while Galileo said that bodies dropped at the same height at the same time came down to earth simultaneously in a vacuum. They were referring to two different situations and it is unfair by Aristotle to claim that he only speculated without resorting to observations.

In any event during the time of Budun Vahanse the Brahmins had carried out an experiment in order to determine whether there was an Athma. They had killed a person, most probably a Shudra, to find out whether “something” escaped from the body at the time of death. Though an abhorred experiment it had the ingredients of the experiments supposed to have been carried out by Galileo except for the fact that the Brahmins would not have accepted the results of the experiment as it would have demonstrated that there was no Athma. However the Brahmins could have attributed the no Athma result to experimental errors not deviating very much from the modern western scientists. It should be pointed out that Galileo wanted to show that bodies came down with the same acceleration in a vacuum and not in air. Had he dropped a feather and a stone simultaneously from the leaning tower of Pisa he could not have shown what he wanted to demonstrate and it is clear that he had selected his objects very carefully. Neither did he create a vacuum around the leaning tower, and he left it to the “observers” to imagine that the experiment was carried out in a vacuum. In essence Galileo had come to the conclusion before the experiment was carried out and he designed his “experiment” in such a way to demonstrate what he had already concluded.

The experiments are not carried out with a so called open mind and western scientists are not persons who have perfected “upeksha” or if the readers insist equanimity though it does not give the same meaning. The philosophers and others who invented the so called scientific method could see that there was no testing of hypothesis in western science, as a few lecturers in the universities know, but some investigation based on preconceived ideas. In fact there are some “researchers” in Sri Lanka who find it difficult to come out with the so called hypothesis they are testing and they just cook up hypotheses when they have to write research proposals etc. No investigation can be carried out with an open mind and the word “gaveshanya” meaning search of the (lost) cows (gavayas) tells us that the “gaveshakaya” (investigator) would not have gone in search of the cows in any arbitrary direction but in certain specific directions dictated to him by his experience. The experiments are designed based on experience in particular and on culture in general. It has to be emphasised that a living thinking person cannot have an open mind on any matter as he or she cannot erase his or hers memories, experience, culture in general, in the manner of switching off a light. All that one can do is to attempt to improve “upeksha” whatever the outcome of experience may be.

The old scientific method had to be given up but the western philosophers, especially those of science, were not prepared to accept that western science was not unique among other systems of knowledge, and they had to invent something that was supposed to be present in western science that the other systems did not posses. Thus Karl Popper probably the well known Philosopher of Science in the last century (I wonder how many erudite lecturers who teach science in our universities have heard of him, though he is supposed to be well known among the western scientists), came out with his theory of falsification. In essence what he said was that scientific theories should be formulated in such a way that they could be falsified. He claimed that Astrology and Marxism cannot be falsified and hence they were not science meaning of course western science. Ironically in Sri Lanka we have Marxists who claim to be scientists and followers of Popper! We wish them luck but why do the westerners want to insist that western science is unique? The answer to that question is that western knowledge in general and western science in particular are upheld in high esteem and are supposed to reach Truth, Reality or whatever which the other systems of knowledge are not capable. The westerners clearly use their knowledge to suppress the others claiming directly or indirectly that the systems of others are myths. Western Science and western knowledge are the weapons more than anything else that are being used to maintain the western Christian colonialism. However, unfortunately for the westerners Popper was not successful and later in the sixties Thomas Kuhn came out with his scheme to uphold the supremacy of western science with his “The Structure of Scientific Revolution which would be discussed briefly in the next instalment. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva