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Synergy in Learning~I

There was no apparent contradiction between the scientific truth and non-scientific faith, and hence no need to isolate one from the other. Until modern science dawned with Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and the others in the Middle Ages, no clear discrimination was preferred between philosophy and science. The fact that the social sciences could not take a clear shape and suffered an identity crisis was also responsible for the non-division

A K GHOSH | Kolkata |

With Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of species that came out in 1660 having enormous data on anthropology, zoology, botany and even geology, the division of sciences became irrevocable. Meanwhile, science shifted its role from “Being” to “Becoming.”

From being a passive interpreter of nature, it became rather an agent of technology and influenced production. Production to market, market to profit, profit to formation of capital and capital to political economy was the process of radical transformation of society. The twentieth century experienced a new consciousness among people which resulted in a highly evolved science called Politics, along with History and Economics. The impact of Marx in the first half of the twentieth century was so fastidious that all social sciences like history, politics, economics, and sociology gained much relevance. And the best aspect of Marxian contribution came to be named as his “dialectical materialism,” wherein he established an irreversible relationship between material growth and human consciousness.

Marx did more service for an eclectic view of social and physical sciences than his paradigm of a communist society. He tried to establish that societal movements follow the evolutionary growth of physical nature. The revolutionary growth of physical and biological sciences went unabated till the end of the Second World War, when social scientists accused the physicists and chemists of being responsible for the criminal progress gained in material sciences. The need for any scientific progress was questioned as humanity was threatened with extinction from the developments in nuclear science, chemical science, and missile science.

One of the brilliant thinkers of the time, Bertrand Russell remarked that “in ancient days men sold themselves to the devil to acquire magical powers and now they acquire from science and turn into devils. There is no hope for humanity unless this power can be tamed and brought into service.” The liberal arts and the social sciences, which had been relegated to back seats in the light of magnificent discoveries in physics, atomic science, chemistry, and medicine grabbed the opportunity to revolt against the unscrupulous growth and proliferation of material sciences, but they could do little but appeal for restraint in the name of human culture and social equanimity.

Social sciences meanwhile gathered the required quantitative content and mathematical usage and developed an authoritative tone necessary for restraining physical science from committing ethical and social blunders. In retrospect, though man began the study of nature seriously in the Neolithic period, there were too many obstacles in his way.

Nature was his habitat and to understand it was a necessary condition for the existence of his species. Accumulation of the facts about Nature was construed as” knowledge” which did not reveal itself before long. Wide gaps of knowledge had to be filled with speculation. Though there was not enough scope of studying society and social activities as such, study of Nature itself needed a thinking process, an ability to guess and a capacity to explain the riddles with logic and reason. This was called philosophy which included the study of planets, sun, oceans, rivers, animals et al.

The Vedic scholars in India did the same thing that Western thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did later. Kautilya called his book Arthashastra which contained the science of statecraft and other issues relating to medicine and tantra. In fact, thinkers like Aristotle and Plato mused on topics from poetry to biology, mathematics to aesthetics, republican aspects of the State to planetary motion under the title “Philosophy,” which meant speculation about nature ~ visible or invisible. Even though scholars from time to time differentiate between logical and illogical, between matter and non-matter, between energy and vacuum ~ nothing grew up as a separate entity of thought, much less as a science.

The big bang theory of philosophy contained all the aspects of pure science as pure as the Pythagoras theorem or laws of Archimedes and all acts of science as deep as metallurgy and planetary movement and as utilitarian as preparing alcohol. The bag also contained pseudo-scientific thoughts like astrology, alchemy, dowsing and now scientific aberrations of faith like migration of the soul and reincarnation. There was no apparent contradiction between the scientific truth and non-scientific faith, and hence no need to isolate one from the other.

Until modern science dawned with Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and the others in the Middle Ages, no clear discrimination was preferred between philosophy and science. The fact that the social sciences could not take a clear shape and suffered an identity crisis was also responsible for the non-division. That Oxford University in the twelfth century offered courses in music, logic, mathematics, and religion explains the ambiguity in perception of academic subjects.

The growth of Positivism in the latter half of the eighteenth century saw a grand appeal of empirical sciences, termed also as the natural sciences, the physical sciences, and the exact sciences. In Europe, the church gave up the battle against science and prepared other forms of social and religious thoughts and their need to coexist. The moral values, ethical norms, political institutions, social habits, and economic phenomena needed as much study as material properties of natural sciences.

Philosophers like Comte stressed the need for humanitarianism to develop in the nineteenth century. He called it the science of society and termed it as sociology. In fact, the all-out advancement in the first half of the nineteenth century manifested itself in unparalleled scientific excesses in the form of two world wars and the Holocaust, dropping of atom bombs, massacres, civil strife, ethnic cleansing, and the ruthless colonisation of the third world.

The savagery of science that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the technology that made the Pearl Harbor attack possible and the engineering that built Auschwitz and other concentration camps were the most somber and grim reminders of education that had failed humankind. It was soon realised that there was something horribly wrong with the way society was being educated. The need was thus felt to seriously look at liberal education and social sciences, which were Interdisciplinary in approach, accepted plurality of insight and respected diversity of views.

In this context, it is perhaps not difficult to understand the anxiety of the celebrated mathematician, Andrew Wiles, that mathematics had lost its moral purity. It is Mr Wiles who at the end of the previous century proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. His anxiety is based on his worry that advances in mathematics were being used as powerful tools to make financial gains or as weapons in cyber wars. Even if his worries are valid, it is difficult to comprehend how the use of mathematics, or any other scientific breakthrough, can be prevented or avoided. So, the morality of the use of products of scientific discoveries had nothing to do with the pursuit of knowledge itself. The smashing of the atom or the discovery of uranium fission were not acts of moral impurity, no matter how these breakthroughs were used subsequently.

In a similar way, the discovery or the making of chemicals has to be distinguished from the production and use of chemicals. Herein lies the importance of the social sciences which are a field of study falling between the natural sciences and philosophy/ humanities and gained recognition from the late nineteenth century as an integral part of scholarly pursuits and the academic curriculum.

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)