Extending the Frontiers of the Scientific Method: An Educational Perspective–M.S. Srinivasan

Key Perspectives:  imparting a broader perspective; scientific method and the inner quest; role of intuition in science; questioning the scientific orthodoxy.

Invention of the Scientific Method is one of the mental revolutions of our modern age, which has added new possibilities to human mind.  There is at present a general recognition in the higher mind of humanity, that the scientific method is a way of thinking which can be applied to any activity of knowledge or life including religion or spirituality.  However for a more extensive diffusion of this broader perspective it has to become part of science education.  This article tries to identify the factors, which has to be incorporated in science education, that will extend the frontiers of scientific method beyond the boundaries set by traditional scientific disciplines.

 Imparting a Broader Perspective

The first step in bringing higher values to science education is to broaden the range, scope and methodology of science.  This need for an enlarged outlook acquires a special significance for modern science because of its increasing tendency to specialize in more and more narrow domains of knowledge.

The student of science has to be awakened to the fact that science is not merely a method or technique nor can it be confined to the laboratory, equipments, university or the various streams of scientific knowledge like physical, life, social or psychological sciences.  Science is in its essence a way of thinking, which can be applied, to any activity of life.  This is something which is recognized by all matured scientific thinkers.  As a standard textbook on sociology edited by two leading sociologists point out:

 “Science is not to be defined by a single method or routine, such as a the before-after experiment or the use of special implements such as glass tubing or lenses.  Each of the old and established sciences has developed more or less distinctive technique, instrument and routines.  The specialized routines and equipment of the scientific enterprise, which vary from discipline to discipline and from time to time, should not be confused with science itself.  All science is characterized more nearly by an attitude, an approach, a point of view, then by a special technique.” (Broom.L, Selznick. P, 1963).

This broader perspective on the scientific method has to be imparted to the learner through illustrative examples.  One of the examples could be the great creative work of Fredrick Taylor, the founder of Scientific Management.  Taylor had no formal education in science or technology.  But he is one of the most creative scientific minds of our modern age.  He is a pioneer in applying the scientific method for organizing a social system like an industry.  Through a rigorous process of observation, testing, experimentation, Taylor evolved a system of thought and practice, which gave birth to an entirely new field of modern knowledge, called Management.  Taylor constantly emphasized in his writing that scientific management is not merely a method or technique but a way of thinking.  Its aim, said Taylor, was to create a “mental revolution” in the thought of owners, managers and workers of industries. (George C.S, 1974)

So, the student of science has to be made aware that scientific method is not the sole prerogative of the professional scientists working in the laboratory nor the scientific community is the only authentic inquirers of truth.  Not all professional scientists are good scientific inquirers.  On the other hand there may be many who are not professional scientists like for example journalists, detectives, historians, executives, entrepreneurs, who may pursue their profession with as much scientific thoroughness as any scientist.  As Susan Hack writes in Times Literary Supplement: ‘—–so successful have the natural science been the words like “science” and “scientific” are often used on honorifically as all purpose terms of epistemic praise.  Unfortunately, this honorific term disguises the otherwise obvious fact that not all, or only, scientists are good, honest, thorough, imaginative inquirers.  Some scientists are lazy, some incompetent, some unlucky, a few crooked and plenty of historians, journalists and detectives are good inquirers.”(Hack.S,1999)

The Scientific Method and the Inner Quest

There is another category of inquirers who are perhaps as scientific in their quest as any great scientist, but they are not recognized as such by the traditional scientific establishment.  They are the yogis, seers and sages of the occult and spiritual traditions, especially the eastern traditions.  Not all spiritual traditions and paths can be called “Scientific”, For example, an unquestioning faith in the Guru and God is an integral part of the spiritual traditions of the East.  But in general, eastern Yogis pursued a scientific and systematic approach in understanding the inner worlds of consciousness and applying it to the psychological and spiritual developments of the individual.  This is the essence of Indian Yoga which as Sri Aurobindo points out “ nothing but applied psychology”.  Recently, some of the modern scientific thinkers are beginning to recognise this scientific dimension of eastern spirituality and admit that spirituality can also be as much scientific as any other quest.  For example as, the well-known exponent and writer on transpersonal psychology, Ken Wilbur states:

“These eastern disciplines such as Vedanta, or Zen are not theories, philosophies psychologies or religions — rather they are primarily a set of experiments in the strictly scientific sense… To refuse to examine the results of such a scientific experiments because one dislikes the data so obtained is in itself a most unscientific gesture”(Wilbur, 1997).

This brings us to the strength and limitations of the scientific method.  The advantage of the scientific method lies in its emphasis on facts, experimentation and its pragmatic orientation to the quest for knowledge.  Its weakness lies in its too heavy exphasis on external or empirical facts and analytical reason which shuts off the scientific world from vast domains of knowledge which are beyond the senses and reason and prevents the flowering of other faculties which may lead to a deeper and more holistic insight into the truth of things.  To overcome these limitations we have to retain the essence of the scientific method but enlarge its scope.  The essence of the scientific method is a triune process. First is the process of observation, or formulating the problem.  Second is a process, which leads to insight into the underlying patterns or laws behind the data or the nature of the problem or the solution.  Third is the process of testing, validation or practical application of the insight for the development, progress and well being of the individual and the collectivity.  We may broaden the scope of the method to include the inner being and the outer life of man or Nature or in other words, all the three processes can be performed either within the confines of a scientific laboratory, or in the outer world of Nature or in the laboratory of our own consciousness or in the outer life of work, action and relationship.

The process and instruments of insight need not be limited to deductive and inductive logic or analytical reason.  We may include other faculties like imagination and intuition and the emotional intelligence.  Why should we limit our potentialities of knowledge by confining our consciousness to a single faculty? Why not we use every faculty of knowledge available or manifest in us in our quest for truth and knowledge? Why should we even restrict the possibilities of knowledge to the faculties of an individual? Why not we base our research on the highest collective wisdom of humanity?

 The Role of Intuition in Science

 The other important factor, which the student of science must know, is the actual process of scientific discovery and role of intuition in science.  The traditional scientific methodology of Observation, Classification, Analysis and Hypothesis is useful as a general framework for understanding the process of science and therefore has to be taught to every student of science.  However when we study the biographies or accounts of great scientists we find the actual process of scientific enquiry, which leads to discovery never follows the rigidly logical and graded methodology.  This actual process runs through trial and error, frustration and disappointment of barren effort, patient and persistent plodding, flights of imagination, a bit of luck and chance, and at the end of it a leap of intuition and joy of discovery.  It is now beginning to be recognized that behind almost every great scientific discovery there is a leap of intuition.  As the great physicist and mathematician Henry Poincare says, “It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition we invent—logic remains barren without intuition”.  And Poincare recounts in one of his books how he had a total insight into an obstruce mathematical problem when he was traveling in a bus; suddenly he saw the whole theory in an instant (Sudershan ECG, 2001).

This real process of scientific enquiry shows that mere intellectual brilliance of the logical or rational mind is not enough to become a great or even a good scientist.  Other psychological qualities like persistence and patience, which are qualities of the will, and extra-rational faculties like intuition are also needed.  Here comes the importance of some of the ethical and psychological disciplines of Indian yoga like equanimity under all circumstances, disinterested pursuit of truth without seeking for personal gains, renunciation of the fruits of action, and mental silence for receiving intuitions.  All these attitudes, values and practices of Indian yoga can be of great help in moulding the inner character required for a successful scientific career.

Questioning the Scientific Orthodoxy

The attitude of critical questioning is an important quality of the scientific temper or character.  But the student of science should not hesitate to apply this attitude to the dogmas and prejudices within his or her own field of science.  For there is within the scientific establishment, orthodoxies which can be as dogmatic and rigid as religious fanaticism.  As the leading biomathematician, Roger U. Jean points out: “In many cases our official science has become a religion in the bad meaning of the word, with us credos and its priests.”(2001) For example when the eminent biologist Ruper Sheldvake published his book “A New Science of Life”, which presents a vision of life, that goes against the traditional scientific theories, it received two contrasting reviews from two reputed science journals.  While the journal “New Scientist” complemented the book as “an important scientific enquiry into the nature of the physical and biological life”, the other journal Nature, the prestigious citadel of scientific orthodoxy, condemned it as “candidate for burning”. (Sheldrake. R, 1997) Is this attitude any different from the fanatic religious clerics who burnt Giordono Bruno and Joan of Arc in the stakes?  So the learner in science should not be afraid of questioning the dogmas and prejudices within the scientific establishment, however venerable it may be.

References:

Broom L and Selznic P(1963), Sociology Text with adopted readings, Newyork, Harper and Row, pp.4

George CS (1974), The History of Management Thought, New Delhi, Prentice Hall of India, pp.90-94.

Hack.S, Times Literary Supplement, July 9, 1999, p.11.

Jeans R.J (2001), Impressions of Synthesis From the Ancient Egyptian Theology,  ed.

T. D. Singh, Thoughts on Synthesis of Science and Spirituality, Bhakthi Vedanta Institute, Calcutta, pp.290-317.

Sudharshan ECG, A Comparative Assessment of Scientific and Spiritual Disicpline, Savijjanam, vol.1, pp.59-60.

Sheldrake R, interview, (Editorial Comments) What is Enlightenment, 1997, vol.2, pp.97.

Wilbur.K, (1997), Spectrum of Consciousness,  Quest Books, Wheaton, pp.11.

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