Essence of Scientific Temper; Science, the Discipline, and Scientist, the Man ; Science & Religion

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The Essence of Scientific Temper

This is the essence of science : ask an  impertinent question and you are on the way to the pertinent answer .

 - J. Bronowski*

It is inconsequential, if not frivolous, to enter into any dialogue of delinking science from religion, faith, superstition and other such entities. This is the favourite past time of some modernists, and that brand which prefers to call itself rationalist. Usually, true scientific temper does not have to make any conscious attempt to delink itself from any thing. The delinking is automatic. Anything that is not objectively verifiable, that cannot be experimentally proved and does not have the possibility of replication cannot fall within the purview of scientific investigation or research. That need not negate its truth, or its worth, for nowhere does science claim that it knows, or will know, the whole truth. All it means is that any truth, opinion or merit it has is extramural to science. It means it falls outside the domain of scientific verifiability. ... the pronouncements of science are made tentatively, on a basis of probability, and are regarded as liable to modification. This produces a temper of mind very different from that of the medieval dogmatist... (And science) pronounces only on whatever, at the time, appears to have been scientifically ascertained, which is a small island in an ocean of nescience (Russell, 1985, p.480; parenthesis added).

Science, the discipline, and Scientist, the man

Having said this, we must immediately realise that science, therefore, can have no basic animosity, or friendship, either with religion, religious belief, or faith. A scientist, however, can. And there is every reason to believe such a distinction can be made, and legitimately so. A scientist is human, and, being so, has his own share of aspirations, beliefs and hopes which cannot, however, be a part of the branch to which he belongs. A large part of his energies can be legitimately spent in discriminating between the two, and not allowing one to negatively influence the other. No doubt he attempts to rid himself of viewpoints that are not based on evidence. But as regards entities he cannot scientifically verify, or has still not developed the methods to scientifically study, he prefers not to comment as a scientist, and yet retains his right to believe, reject or defend, as a human. In this, no doubt, lie shades of his hypocrisy which is inevitable in all such ambivalent situations. But neither pointing it out nor condemning it is of any great worth. The latter, if anything, leads to the worship of science, by raising the branch to the level of a dogma or a faith, which itself can have no less disastrous consequences for mankind. What must be attempted is a realization of this ambivalence, of this duality of cognition, and a sincere attempt made to allow the bare minimum of unhealthy interaction between the two. For this, there are two cardinal rules a scientist must follow with regard to his branch. First, he should never be unwilling to accept the worth of evidence, howsoever damning to the most favourite of his theories. And what follows as a corollary, he should never get emotionally attached to any of his theories, howsoever lovingly elaborated. The second, and perhaps more important point is, for want of evidence, science withholds comment. For want of objective data, either way, a true scientist withholds judgment. It is important he withholds it, for passing judgement in the absence of evidence makes one liable to fall into the trap of either cynical bullying or unnecessary messianism. And a vapid theorizing whose soaring hopes only make one come crashing to the ground finally. This most science watchers must have realized in the fall of any number of new fanciful theories that attract instant attention but, unable to stand the test of verifiable evidence, sink into as rapid an oblivion

Scientific Temper and Religiosity

Science, therefore, or scientific temper, need have nothing to do directly with how religious or otherwise an individual is. That should clarify why the best of scientists have been both pious and atheists. This is not to say that religiosity, or its denial, makes them better scientists, although personally they may so claim. All it means is that personal preferences and biases are difficult to delink for even those who are in disciplines that involve the most rigorous objectivity. Secondly, as far as the question why religion, or its  refutation, is accorded diametrically opposite value by the committed believer or the established iconoclast amongst the scientists goes, the answer is not very difficult. It is more an indication of their personal qualities of single-minded pursuit and devotion. It is this that makes them rise to the top and gets exercised as much in their scientific research as their metaphysical opinions. And faith, or its denial, can become important catalysts in both pursuits. The scientist concerned, however, may give it a totally different, personalized, colour. This, again, is only proof that the scientist is human after all and, in spite of his best efforts, human failings cannot but become manifest at time


It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every morning before breakfast. It keeps him young.

- Konrad Lorenz*

There is another facet to the advancement of science. Just as replication is important, refutation is equally so, in fact more so, according to certain authorities. The march of scientific progress is the result of refutation. Karl Popper, a respected name in the philosophy of science, believes there is in science an inherent (or inbuilt ) quality of development by refutability (Popper, 1968; 1969). Progress in science, therefore, is more the consequence and product of the refutation of a theory, concept or idea, less of its confirmation. Controversy, and slanging, are therefore just logical consequences. Similarly, Thomas Kuhn talks of paradigm shifts which fundamentally alter perceptions that cause scientific progress (Kuhn 1970; see also p. 48 of this book). This means that instability of scientific hypotheses is an inbuilt feature of scientific advance. This may appear an anachronism to the science worshippers. But its worth is apparent when we see how the most recent of scientific research become out dated tomorrow. To the human-being it means that although science is a method to search for means to rid one of error, it is a search that only approximates, but may never finally lead, to the truth in the ultimate analysis. That need not make the search any less intense, or the genuine pursuit of science any less important, as it can apparently do as an immediate reaction. Amongst other things, the very fact that scientific progress occurs itself helpsmankind achieve so much of material advancement in its wake. But what is  materially beneficial to mankind is only incidental to scientific progress. It is never its goal, or even its major thrust.

For science knows only one commandment : contribute to science.

- Bertolt Brecht*

This determinism is best realized early by the more prudent, and is neither disliked nor lamented. It helps, if anything, in sobering down unrealistic expectations from science and in not involving it in any unnecessary controversies with those aspects of human endeavour (like politics, religion, social activism etc.) with which it need not have any quarrel whatsoever.

Some Conclusions

To conclude the second part, one may say that the true scientist withholds himself from passing comment on a phenomenon which his experimental method can either not verify or which falls outside the purview of his branch itself. That does not mean he shirks his responsibility. It does not also mean he may not take up this phenomenon for study at a future date, when he develops the necessary methodology and the expertise. All it means is that at the existent state of his knowledge, he withholds himself from either attempting something which he cannot scientifically assay, or passing judgment on something he cannot objectively verify. He withholds judgment, mind you. He says neither yes nor no. Often most people err in considering withholding of judgment to mean no, or the lack of courage to say yes. This is because dislike of a state of suspended animation is natural to human beings. But the scientist has to constantly live with it. There is hence no justification for such a belief.


*Cohen and Cohen (1986)

Mens Sana Monographs [MSM]: A Mens Sana Research Foundation Publication




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