Relevance of Indian Philosophy to the Philosophy of Science
By Dr. Sundar Sarukkai, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

What is 'Philosophy of Science'?

Philosophising about Science is an age-old tradition, though Philosophy of Science, as a discipline, is a new area of study. 

Science is a model for one kind of human thought.  Its speciality is its link with truth, or rational thinking.  But Science is more complex - more than just compilations of truth and rationales.  What is Science, then?  This is the question that Philosophy of Science tries to address and understand. 

We can use the example of Language and Linguistics to explain the relationship between Science and the Philosophy of Science.

A language consists of letters, words, etc. A language helps a user make sentences to communicate a meaning.  But Linguistics is the Science of Language. It concerns itself with the complexities of language, its structure and development - its etymology, morphology, phonology, syntax and semantics!   

Similarly, Philosophy of Science by Dr. Sundar Sarukkai, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore tries to analyse the basis of Science, its conceptual ideas, and tries to open up and explicate the nature of Science using the tools of Philosophy.  

The goal of Science is to obtain knowledge of the natural world. The goal of Philosophy of Science is to examine Science’s structure, components, techniques, assumptions, limitations, and so forth.

The importance of Logic

Our senses are our windows to the world.  But, there is something that appears to the mind, which is not experienced by the senses.  The mind allows you to step out of the limitation of the senses. It allows you to come to conclusions based on generalisations that are beyond the limitation of the senses.  For example, when you drop a ball, it falls down; whenever you drop a ball, it falls down; so you conclude that all balls, when dropped, fall down.  Obviously, your conclusion cannot be arrived at after dropping each and every ball in the world and seeing them fall down one by one.  So, what allows you to say something more than what is perceived by the senses - it is reasoning, or logic. 

Some Indian philosophical ideas that are useful to understand Science 

Five-step Indian system of logic

Scientists are concerned with deductive structures or empirical statements..  Logic is a very important component of Philosophy. However, Western logicians differ from their Indian counterparts in that they do not insist on giving an example for inferential statements.  For example, in Western Logic, "If smoke, then fire" is a universal and complete truth.  In Indian Logic, the statement has to be further qualified with an example of an actual case and also a dissimilar example such as: If smoke, then fire, such as seen in the kitchen, and such as is not seen on a lake, (where there cannot be fire). 

The three-step Western logic is not a valid argument for Indian logicians who follow the five-step Nyaya school.  Western logicians argue that giving an example fails to confer universality on the statements made.  But, on the basis of the Indian logicians' work, Science can always be right, whereas Science can be wrong if Western logic is the basis. 

Method of arriving at the Truth

In Western logic, coming to the truth is a question of taking a belief and analysing it.  To Indian thought, Truth is a kind of cognition, an awareness, a psychological, physical event happening in the mind.  Whereas Western Philosophy is rational, Indian philosophy is rational and transcendental.

Much of the evidence for how India's ancient logicians and scientists developed their theories lies buried in polemical texts that are not normally thought of as scientific texts. These texts attempt to debate the value of the real-world as against the spiritual-world. But in their attempts to prove the primacy of a mystical soul, or Atman, they often go to great lengths in describing competing rationalist and worldly philosophies rooted in a more realistic and more scientific perception of the world. Their extensive commentaries illustrate

·  the popular methods of debate

·  of developing a hypothesis

·  of extending and elaborating a theory

·  of furnishing proofs and counter-proofs. 

That so many scholars from each of India's philosophical schools felt the imperative to prove their extra-worldly theories using rationalist tools of deductive and inductive logic suggests that faith in a super-natural being was not just taken for granted.  

Are Science and Religion at cross-purposes?

Contrary to the popular perception that Indian civilization has been largely concerned with the affairs of the spirit and "after-life", India's historical record suggests that some of the greatest Indian minds were much more concerned with developing philosophical paradigms that were grounded in reality. 

 If some of their characterizations required later revisions or refinement, or even corrections, it didn't take away from their fundamentally scientific approach. Their inadequacies were a consequence of incomplete knowledge and the understandable inability to see all the complexities of Nature that we are now able to (through advanced scientific instruments and centuries of accumulated knowledge). Their errors did not, however, stem from stubborn faith or deliberate rejection of reality and real-world phenomenon.  

There was considerable dedication to the scientific method and to developing the principles of deductive and inductive logic even though Indian philosophers concerned themselves with the nature of the soul, after life and other metaphysical ideas that are considered far removed from rational scientific thinking. 

 From 1000 B.C to the 4th C A.D (also described as India's rationalistic period) treatises in astronomy, mathematics, logic, medicine and linguistics were produced. The philosophers of the Sankhya school, the Nyaya-Vaisesika schools and early Jain and Buddhist scholars made substantial contributions to the growth of science and learning. Advances in the applied sciences like metallurgy, textile production and dyeing were also made.  

In particular, the rational period produced some of the most fascinating series of debates on what constitutes the "scientific method":

·  How does one separate our sensory perceptions from dreams and hallucinations?

·  When does an observation of reality become accepted as fact, and as scientific truth?

·  How should the principles of inductive and deductive logic be developed and applied?

·  How does one evaluate a hypothesis for it's scientific merit? What is a valid inference?

·  What constitutes a scientific proof? 

These and other questions were attacked with an unexpected intellectual vigour.  

As keen observers of Nature and the human body, India's early philosopher-scientists studied human sensory organs, analyzed dreams, memory and consciousness. The best of them understood dialectics, or the logic, in Nature; they understood change, both in quantitative and qualitative terms; they even posited a proto-type of the modern atomic theory. It was this rational foundation that led to the flowering of Indian civilization.  

India's philosophical age was thus a period of tremendous intellectual ferment and vitality. It was a period of scientific discovery and technological innovation as well.  This is an interesting paradox, similar to what existed in the life of Isaac Newton, whose position as a scientist was not negated by his immense work in theology.

Based on Dr. Sundar Sarukkai's talk, delivered at the invitation of Sri Tirunarayana Trust, at the Indian Institute of World Culture, on Sep. 19, 2004, and extracts from websites on the Nature of Philosophy and Science.