Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s book,’What is Science?’

Dr Sarukkai offers some perspectives prevalent in the 19th century, relevant to science –

“…the ‘scientist’ of those times moved between science, theology, political economy and even literature.”

“Before the use of the word ‘science’ to refer to subjects like physics and chemistry, the common terminology for them was ‘natural philosophy’.”

“People like Faraday and T.H. Huxley thought that their work (in science) was part of a broader framework which included philosophy, theology and morality.”

(Page 2)

He then contrasts it with what is considered science in the present scenario-

“…science subjects taught in universities today includes marine science, environmental science, management science, health science, medical science and library science. Some academic institutions offer a course on ‘wine science’!”

(Page 3)

“In the early days of scientific disciplines, there was value in relating them to an established and respected discipline like philosophy. Similarly it is the case that some disciplines found an advantage in being seen as a science because of the cultural and social prestige attached to it.”

“…subjects like management studies become management science; ecology becomes ecological science and so on. Even a subject that studies the art of wine making and tasting is presented as ‘Wine Science’. In India, we have a a unique subject, one which is extremely popular, called Home Science. Confronted with this phenomenon it is indeed reasonable to ask the question ‘What is science?'”

(Page 4)

Then Dr Sarukkai begins to elaborate on the different meanings associated with the word ‘science’.

Science as a Concept-

“When we see a mango tree we classify it as a tree. In doing so, we are placing a particular tree under the general concept of a tree. When we classify disciplines as belonging to science we are similarly doing this job of classifying them under a concept called Science.”

(Page 5)

He points out that it is easier to say that there are 45 chairs in a room than to name every single chair to refer to them. He then continues-

“…when we have a proliferation of things we can use categories to have an economic description. In this sense, categories are not as much about truth as about making it easy for us to talk about objects, to make sense about similarity and so on. However, almost all cases of categorization have a problem: that of specifying why something is placed under a given category.”

(Page 6)

He addresses the problems encountered in attempts to establish similarity between items grouped in a category, and develops the idea of relatedness between them-

“What we have done by looking at science as a category is to replace the question of similarity between diverse subjects and activities that are placed under science with the idea of relatedness as in a family. But this does not solve the problem of what to do when new members claim relationship with the family.”

“In important debates about astrology, alternate medicine and so on, this is really what is at stake.

(Page 7)

Science as a Title

Dr. Sarukkai elaborates on the idea of science as a title bestowed by government bodies, international bodies, or other institutions-

“…’science’ is a lot like a ‘nation’. The analogy between science and nation is quite strong. The first is that science is intrinsically associated with an authority which will designate what is science and what is not just like some institution will decide whether a particular entity is a nation or not. In this sense, science is like a title of nationhood which is bestowed by some authority.”

(Page 8)

“The case of the social sciences is a reminder about how science functions as a title. Many scientists from the natural sciences do not accept social sciences as a science even though social scientists (as the name itself suggests) call themselves as scientists.”

(Page 9)

Science as a Method

On the idea of science as a method, he begins to unpack the associated ideas of experiment and theory-

“Many historians and philosophers of science also understand science as a method. Although the idea of a coherent and uniform scientific method common to all disciplines of science has been challenged there are nevertheless good reasons for believing that science is characterised by a special method. The method is, in the most general sense, defined by the union of experiment and theory.”

“But…on the one hand, the integration of theory and experiment is common to various other human activities (in fact, I would say that it is common to most of everything we do) and on the other hand, the meaning of theory and experiment themselves are different in the various disciplines of science.”

“Moreover, how do we distinguish the idea of experiment in art and cooking, to give two random examples, against experiments in physics, chemistry and biology?”

(Page 13)

He then spells out the aspects of theory and experiment which are unique to science-

“Here is one way to characterise the uniqueness of scientific theories: they are unique because not only do they describe but they also explain. Moreover, the character of scientific explanation is itself unique (more on this later). Scientific theory also creates and uses many new concepts which are not available in ordinary descriptions. In fact, invention of scientific concepts is a special characteristic of good science.”

“Most often, at least in the fundamental theories of physics and partly chemistry, theories are mathematical in nature. Related to this is the discovery of laws of nature. All these are unique characteristics of theories in science.”

“Scientific experiments today- like scientific theory- are very specialized and needs sophisticated technology. Scientific experiments not only test but they are far more dynamic- they intervene in nature and show a great degree of manipulative skills. They are able to manipulate nature much more than any other model of experiment which may be present in various other activities such as art, cooking and so on.”

“And finally, the relation between theory and experiment is also unique to science. This relation is associated with the ideas of verifiability and falsifiability. This relation has also been understood to be a logical relation- that is, the move from observation and evidence to theory and the relation between the theoretical and the experimental often has the structure of a deductive argument.”

(Page 14)
Categories: ReadWhat is

Scroll Up