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

Dr. Sarukkai addresses the relationship between Science and Truth-

“Science has an intrinsic engagement with truth. It is based on the belief that what is says about the world are the truths about the world. Scientists may accept that their truths are fallible, that is, probably wrong and potentially open to change. But given the knowledge at that moment, their assertions are about truths of the world.”

(Page 18)

“Although philosophers find talk of truth troubling particularly because they have had great difficulty in understanding truth (there are many theories of truth in philosophy), scientists continue to associate truth with the activity of science. This has also been used as a way to demarcate science from other activities because, in this view, science is primarily an activity designed to uncover truth about the physical world. And in this science has succeeded like no other activity- it has indeed discovered countless facts about the world which were not accessible to ordinary perception or inference… I will discuss the larger issues surrounding truth and knowledge in the context of science in a later chapter.”

(Page 19)

Science as a Way of Thinking and Doing

“A well-known physicist, Richard Feynman… in his speech about what is science at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in 1996, related science to observation and the capacity to think critically about these observations.”

“One influential image of scientists is that they are like children. Like children, they are supposed to have a capacity to ask naive questions, to show great inquisitiveness about the natural world, to just tinker with things.”

(Page 19)

“The spirit of experimentation is primarily that of tinkering with the world and with the objects at hand. Tinkering illustrates an act of curiosity to find out how a thing is made, how to put it back, what would happen if one ‘played’ with objects and so on.”

“Thinking is also a lot like tinkering. Scientists tinker with their thoughts in the sense that they take an idea and do things to it like one plays with things. Given an idea, like an object, they will attempt to see what kinds of presuppositions are hidden in that thought. They will also ask what will happen if they change one element of that idea just like they would attempt to see what would happen if they remove one part from an object. These constitute a method of doing science which is often referred to as ‘thought experiments’.”

“…this is another way to define science- not necessarily in terms of concept, method etc., but primarily in terms of a special way of thinking and doing.”

“This view of science is also a useful one for demarcation since other activities might not be defined so much by this attitude of tinkering.”

(Page 20)

Science as a Narrative

He then presents how science can be understood by what it says and the way it is said-

“How a story is told is the narrative of that story. Science is special in the way it tells its stories. For example, there is a story about how an eclipse is caused because a snake swallows up the sun or the moon. We call this story a myth suggesting that it is a story that is not based on facts. In contrast, we have another story- the story told by science as to how eclipses occur. This story is that when the moon comes in between the Earth and the Sun, the sun gets eclipsed. We call this story a scientific description because we believe that it is a true description of what happens in nature.”

“But primarily both myths and narratives of science are stories. But the way in which the story is told differs in myths and in science. The scientific narrative might be filled with attempts to explain, using other observations as evidence, making an argument for the phenomenon and so on. The mythical narrative might ‘just’ tell a story.

“Moreover, the images myths use will often be metaphorical whereas scientific narratives will primarily be literal- although we should note this is a claim that is questionable. (For example, the standard way of using straight lines to represent light rays is a metaphorical way of understanding light propagation and this image is very important to visually communicate the process of eclipse.)”

(Page 21)

“…I think the capacity of science to come up with complex narratives in itself is its special strength. In fact, I would argue that science ‘methodologizes’ the capacity to tell stories- that is, a strength of the scientific method is to train scientists to make up innumerable stories. Which among all these stories is ‘right’ is a different matter altogether.”

“However, there are special rules that characterise story telling in science…creation of special concepts (that are most often measurable objects) in its stories (this is a powerful difference between ‘ordinary’ storytelling and scientific narratives); rejection of ‘supernatural’ elements in the story…finding a structure of explanation within these stories… various strategies of explanation also need to be present; no invocation of ultimate ‘purpose’ and in general no explicit use of philosophical or metaphysical issues in that narrative; the absence of an explicit author of the story thereby indicating a universality to the story.”

(Page 22)
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