More on Postmodernism and the Non-Universality of Science

More on Postmodernism and the Non-Universality of Science

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From the founding of the scientific academies in Europe in the seventeenth century up until the middle of the last quarter of the twentieth century, there was the implicit belief that science, such as had been erected during the last few centuries, had a validity that transcends race and religion, creed and nationality. One of major impacts of postmodernism has been to challenge, if not shatter this perspective. Postmodernists have been arguing that science is only one mode of interpreting the phenomenal world, and that the more ancient modes which are still current in various garbs among the peoples of the world who have been unaffected by the results and worldviews of modern science, are no less valid.

Thomas Kuhn’s revolutionary book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was published in 1962. It turned out to be one of the most widely read commentaries on the nature of the scientific enterprise. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it is said to have sold several million copies. It seeped into every department in academia: history, philosophy, psychology, education, and more. Practically every college student, whether or not he or she had had any direct interaction with science read it, often was required to read it. The result was to change the (educated) public’s impression of, and even respect for, science as a disinterested quest for truth. Kuhn’s central thesis was that the scientific worldview is a periodically changing one, and that in each epoch working scientists spin their theories in a consensually accepted framework which he called a paradigm. When this paradigm shifts there is said to be a revolution in science.

In a sense, Kuhn was only philosophizing on what every practicing scientist knows: namely, that when new data and insights emerge, science is periodically obliged to modify or even discard a long-accepted framework of explanations. True, in any given phase, one takes that framework to be the truth, but only in the sense that it is the most adequate one in a given state of our knowledge. However, by giving this phenomenon a technical-sounding name (paradigm shift), and subjecting it to keen and scholarly analysis with appropriate historical references, Kuhn unwittingly sowed the seeds for skepticism in science itself. His statements to the effect that scientists are not as objective or as independent in their thinking as is generally believed is true up to a point, but it also created an intellectual atmosphere that exposed the scientific edifice to attacks, sometimes legitimate, but often  indiscriminate and even illegitimate.

Kuhn’s thesis gained even wider currency with the publication of Jen FranÁois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition  (1979) which was one of the first to challenge the idea of  science as embodying universal truths. The world has known since ancient times beautiful narratives about the physical universe in various cultures. Modernism arose from the conviction that there are grand narratives in the context of explanations and human values: frameworks for truths and value-systems that transcend cultural and national boundaries. Lyotard, who had probably been jolted by the colonialist violence that his own country (France) had perpetrated in Indochina and Algeria,  argued that faith in master-narratives is essentially violence-generating and has totalitarian elements built into them. He seems to have ignored the fact that the scientific revolution spread little by little from France, Italy, and England to all the countries of Europe and to Russia without any violence or totalitarianism.  He also forgot the horrible totalitarian and violent repressions in many societies before the emergence of the scientific meta-narrative. In any event, the potential for homogeneity that is implicit in any meta-narrative is what is resisted by postmodernism which celebrates heterogeneity and diversity. Lyotard himself defined postmodernism as “an incredulity toward metanarratives.”

If Amerindians in the Amazon have a different view of how the world came to be, if  Pacific Islanders have a different explanation for what causes the tide, if  astrologers believe that Venus influences your love life, then all these narratives are no less valid than what some “Western” scientists say. Indeed, in this all-embracing postmodernist vision, science such as it is practiced by a handful of people in the West, is essentially a Western invention. It has no universal validity, and it is both immoral and brutal to shove it down the throats of Non-Western peoples who have every right to maintain and nurture their own ancient science, such as their ancestors had constructed it.

At the other extreme of postmodernist interpretation are claims to the effect that ancient Non-Western cultures had already discovered many of the findings of modern science. Thus, in the name of nationalist science, we read things to the effect that there were planes in ancient India, that the theory of evolution is implicit in the Qu’ran, that the Dogon of Mali had studied Sirius B, etc. It was suggested in an essay by William Cobern and Cathleen C. Loving on “Defining Science within Science Education from Multicultural and Universalist Perspectives” (1998) that in the interest of multiculturalism, “one could have ‘Maori science’ or ‘First Nations science’, (or for that matter, ‘Christian science’ and Islamic science, etc.) – just as ‘football’ could be broadened to include ‘American’ football. We could be even more inclusive by simply taking science to be knowledge of Nature – but one needs to reconsider why anyone would want to do any of these things.”  Robert Nola and G¸rol Irzik  (Philosophy, Science Education, and Culture, 2005) stated that a narrow view of science “only diminishes the legitimacy of knowledge derived through generations of naturalistic observation and insight, it simultaneously devalues those cultures which traditionally rely heavily on naturalistic observation and insight.”

Of all the misguided and negative aspects of postmodernism, the thesis that modern science should not be imposed on (read taught to) Non-Western peoples is perhaps the most dangerous, and also, unwittingly, the most arrogant. It arises from at least three gross misunderstandings about science, culture, and civilization. First, implicit in this view is the notion that science has always been there in Western civilization. The fact is, many of the worldviews in twenty-first century cultures which have not been touched by science, were also there in Europe in the Middle Ages and before. Science is not just an outgrowth of ancient science, in many respects it is also a radical departure from ancient worldviews. Ever since it arose, Western civilization has become more dynamic, creative, conquering, and strong in many respects. This is not to deny that there have also been several negative consequences at the same time. Science is constantly changing. In the nineteenth century no one in the West even thought of the Big Bang. In the 1940s nobody accepted the notion of plate tectonics.

Cultures which hold on to ancient views are, epistemically speaking, stagnant.  To argue that Non-Western cultures must hang on to their old science is equivalent to saying that they should for ever remain stagnant or that they are simply incapable of advancing from their ancestral worldviews. It is to forget that the methodology of science has appeal to all normal human brains when they are initiated into them. Keep three generations of children in the West away from schools of any kind, and you can transform the entire civilization into the worldviews of their medieval ancestors. This is what the proponents of the abandon-Western-science-advocates are trying to accomplish in the Non-Western world.