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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Vignana Darshana - Scientific Philosophy

The Sanskrit word darshana means “point of view”, somewhat similar to the word Philosophy in English. I chose this name because I remembered a book called Sarva Darshana Sangraha written sometime between the 14 or the 15th century. The title means a “Compendium of Points of view”. This book elaborates on 16 different philosophical points of view existent at that time in history of India. This book did not include Vedanta and many more. Scientific point of view was not there, of course. I gave the name Vignana Darshana to this aspect of philosophy, since science is also a point of view. It is a philosophical system with its own rules of inquiry.

The eastern traditions did not emphasize empiricism as much as the western tradition did. Science and its methodology are very much products of the western civilization. Its basic rules were established by Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Bacon and others. The prime requirements are that the chosen topic be studied in an objective manner, that the methods are transparent and open, the knowledge is available to anyone and the studies reproducible. In its never-ending quest for obtaining reliable knowledge about the universe and the laws of Nature, the human mind uses science and scientific methods as its tools. 

 Scientific investigation requires critical thinking in addition to imagination, creativity and ability to see beyond what is apparent. Critical thinking associated with analytical thinking help study the universe by deconstructing complex events. Imaginative thinking helps develop hypothesis. It also helps develop experiments and tools to test the hypothesis. Systems thinking is needed to study complex phenomena and emergent properties such as in biology, climatology, and ecology.  

Initially, a problem is identified and, its components are clearly defined. The problem gets looked at from different angles. Published literature is reviewed carefully to understand the current state of knowledge and to make sure the problem has not been answered already.  Gaps in knowledge are identified and the currently identified problem is examined in this context. The problem is broken down into manageable and measurable, but meaningful questions. A primary question is identified and stated clearly.  Possible answers to the question are generated. A testable hypothesis is generated for each of the possible answers. It is indeed best to generate several competing hypotheses to be tested (Chamberlain 1965). Newer methods and tools may have to be developed to test each hypothesis. Or, methods already published in the literature may be used, if appropriate.  It may be necessary to collaborate with more than one expert in appropriate fields to plan and conduct the experiments. 

Data is collected, collated, documented, analyzed using appropriate statistical tools. A specific conclusion is reached which should be strictly based on available, analyzed data and supporting evidence. It should be clear that the conclusion is valid only under the conditions prevalent in the test conditions. They can be extrapolated to some extent, but not without danger. For example, a physiological observation made in a rat may not be applicable to humans. A treatment method which works well in a 45 year-old woman from USA may not be directly applicable to treat a 11 year old girl in Greece. 

It should also be clear that the conclusion reached is valid only until contrary evidence is obtained. The conclusion reached often opens other avenues or raise more questions and becomes a springboard for more inquiry. 

What are some of the mental disciplines needed during the process of scientific thinking? Non-attachment to one’s favored ideas, intellectual honesty, attention to details, ability to be precise in observation and documentation, and willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead are the primary requirements. One should focus and be prepared to pursue to any depth and be able to accept criticism.   Imagination is an essential criterion. But imagination has to be tempered with evidence, self-criticism and impartial judgment.

Generating a hypothesis is the most important initial intellectual activity. The hypothesis has to be amenable to testing and capable of answering the specific question or the problem which initiated the research project in the first place. It should be falsifiable. (“A theory is not a theory until can be disproved” Platt 1964) It is indeed preferable to generate several hypotheses from the outset (Chamberlin 1965). This will promote thoroughness by looking at all possible explanations for a phenomenon and the design of investigations along several lines. It is also a good antidote to “the dangers of parental affection for a favorite theory” (Platt 1964).

Interpreting evidence requires knowledge of the subject and of the methodology used to collect data, an eye for unexpected data and an ability to think about unexplained observations (Beveridge, 1957).  Platt (1964) redefines inductive inference of Francis Bacon as “strong inference” and opines that this is equivalent to the use of syllogism in deductive reasoning. He suggests that the following steps be applied formally, explicitly and regularly to every problem in science: 1.devising alternate hypothesis (noted earlier as multiple hypotheses); 2.devising a crucial experiment (or several of them) with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses; 3. Carry out the experiment so as to get a clean result and 4. Recycling the procedure, making sub-hypotheses or subsequent hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain. Generation of multiple hypothesis and the use of strong inference make for the strongest thinking process in science.

Science gives us the tools to get as close to truth as possible. These are: objectivity, measurements, insistence of reproducibility of results, acceptance and invitation of criticism and ability to self-correct. When an exception is found to an existing hypothesis, a new level of understanding is reached and, a new hypothesis is generated to account for the recently identified fact that contradicts the original hypothesis. This confuses the general public who thinks that science is unreliable because it keeps changing. Science is humble to the extent it admits that given the current data, this is as close to truth as it can get. It does not accept authority, and is not afraid of criticism; indeed, it welcomes.               

Conclusions reached by scientific methods can be verified. In addition, knowledge generated in one area of science can be applied to other areas. Finally, science does not have all the answers, nor does it profess to have them. Science cannot solve all the human problems which require changes in human behavior. Science cannot give absolute answers with absolute guarantee.

I wish to conclude this essay with a summary of an editorial by Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). He points out that the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

    First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

    “Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

    Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

    “Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

    “Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse.”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out that all the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all these values with exceptional vigor.

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