Wednesday, June 02, 2010

After Science

Science is the new dogma of our age. Of the industrial age.

We have done brilliantly with science. We have battled nature and pushed the boundaries forward. We have changed the possibilities of human life, and also greatly extended it. All because of science, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have engaged in research and came up with answers hitherto unknown. We owe our existence, almost every minute of our life, to various scientific discoveries that led to this point.

And, therefore, not reasonably, we believe in science.

This faith is boundless, a dogma. Our world is based on simple principles: scientific is good, everything else is bad. In this setting, we must substitute our faith with science, because faith itself is non-scientific. So, we have Scientific Management, a set of processes and methods which can clock and chain human work. And, it is not just the bankers and businessmen who caught on the fad. We have Scientific Socialism, which dates back to the days of the origins of scientific management, and indeed, the Christian Scientists. There was a time in India when Hindu revivalists tried to find a 'scientific' justification for every odd Hindu custom, including of shaving off the head and of wearing the sacred thread. I am sure they had their cousins in other religions too.

In fact, science came to replace religion. There are so many things around us that we don't know, don't understand and can not explain. Before we started winning our wars with nature, we explained and understood this in terms of religion. Religion was the knowledge system we accumulated over centuries, and we looked for answers, when baffled, in the wise words of men who asked the same questions before us.

Then came science.

The basic premise of science was questioning. Don't take any answer for granted, ask why. The passive knowledge system of religion was not enough; suddenly we had the confidence that we can, and need to, find our own answers. The process of enquiry opened up new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Most evident of these results were in technology, suddenly we could fly and float, cover great distances, cure ailments, reach out to the Moon, solve complex problems and ask more and more sophisticated questions. We came to believe that we live in the age of science.

But, if religion fell short while we tried to apply our imagined models to the material world, the opposite, applying the principles of the material world to the space of imagination and creativity was no less disastrous. In fact, the better we got at solving the problems of the material world, worse we did to solve our cognitive ones. Nothing wrong with science, though; it is just that we turned the principles of science on its head.

When we engaged with the material world, we engaged with a sense of awe and a sense of limitation; our method was of questioning, patient questioning. Besides, material problems gave material cues - we knew what we could or could not achieve. But when we brought the methods to our cognitive world, the usual approach was - this works in nature, so this must work here. The humility of questioning was often missing, and what we got is not scientific enquiry, but scientific pretension to support what is essentially a pre-conceived idea.

I am not trying to paint all the economists, psychologists, social scientists in the same brush; nor I am questioning the intellectual integrity of the individuals in those professions. I am only of the opinion is because of the stunning success of science in solving many material problems, science has achieved a dogmatic proportion; in the name of science, anything goes.

There are a number of things that creates the 'science' myth. Not knowing is not fashionable. The reigning fashion in an incomplete discipline like, say, management, where the unknown largely surpasses the existing body of knowledge, is not to acknowledge the unknown at all, but present a single dimension or solution as the answer to everything. The same in economics: There seems to be some gospel truths which seems to cause trouble often, but never changed.

One way of looking at this is to think that we have reached the twilight of the scientific age. See this debate around recession as equivalent of the inquisition, the last desperate attempts by the medieval clergy to retain their monopolies on the business of answers. Indeed, science is not going to go away anywhere, as the religion did not; in fact, religion continued to play an ever more important role since the day. Just that, it lost its primacy, which turned out not to be a bad thing.

I am not suggesting that we are going to go back to the age of voodoo. Human societies never go back. We stand on the accumulated body of knowledge of the centuries, of all religious movements, of enlightenment and of scientific discoveries. But, at times like this, the rules, the fundamental assumptions change. From our blind faith in science, we reach a point where we need to ask fresh questions and recognize the limitations of science. Scientific age did not mean abandoning all moralities, only the questioning the fatwas and edicts handed down by religious heads; the post-scientific age does not mean abandoning the process of enquiry and reason, but only an acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge and need to persist in the process of enquiry rather than proclaiming premature victories.

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