Science, as we all
recognize, is one of the most lofty expressions of the human spirit. It is the
consequence of the irrepressible urge in the human mind to explore, understand,
interpret and explain the world of perceived reality. This urge and efforts to
give vent to it have been there in all cultures at all times: thus arose all the
magnificent mythologies and the ancient insights of pre-modern science.
Since the 16th
century, however, germinating from countless fructifying factors, there emerged
what has come to be known as modern science whose tools and methodologies
have been significantly different from those of its counterparts of previous
centuries. What distinguishes this science from all previous ones is that has
transcended the boundaries of race and religion, of language and tradition.
Today there is an international network of scientists that has no specific
national or ethnic affiliation.
Culture is another
manifestation of the human spirit an has various different expressions. There is
language and literature, art and music, religion and tradition, games and food,
custom and costume, politics and poetry: all these are culture-based. They are
as varied and colorful as groups in the world. When we travel to different
countries, or even to different regions of a single country, we recognize the
variety and diversity in cultural expressions.
Thus, we are
confronted with the following situation: On the one hand we have science: the
all-embracing unifying force in the world at large; and on the other hand we
have culture: which is a powerful and enriching indicator of how different human
beings can be. How can we put the two in the same bottle?
The answer to this
lies in the following: It turns out that practically every manifestation of
culture has been affected in one way or another by the emergence of modern
science. This is a very crucial point. Ordinarily we are inclined to think that
scientists work in their laboratories, bankers in banks, actors in the theater,
artists in studios, politicians in government places, etc. But what is
interesting is that practically every other activity in human society has been
profoundly affected by the rise of modern science. And these influences have
been significant enough to transform every human enterprise.
Let us consider a few
instances of the impact of science on culture.
The most fundamental aspect of any society is its material framework. There can
be no significant contributions to culture and civilization if all the people
have to toil for the bare needs of survival. Whether in ancient Egypt or China,
Greece or India, it was a handful of people of the privileged classes who
created and left for posterity great cultural legacies. The founders of human
culture and the contributors to it could
not have accomplished this but the fact that their material needs were taken
care of by the labors of oppressed and less gifted individuals, and that one
needed the blood and sweat of countless and now forgotten thousands for erecting
the magnificent structures of temples and cathedrals, pyramids and great walls
that have survived the ravages of centuries.
We all know how in
many different ways the emergence of modern science has come to the assistance
of human muscular exertion in every conceivable manner, and indeed added
considerably to the overall quality and comfort of everyday life. The blending
of science and technology is in fact a rather recent phenomenon in human
history, for many generations in many societies impressive technology flourished
without any serious scientific underpinnings. It was not until 19th
century with the rise of thermodynamics and the conscious application to the
notions of efficiency, breakthroughs in the science of electromagnetism and the
consequent invention of the electric motor and the generator, and in our own
times, the harnessing of the electron and through our understanding of the laws
of the microcosm that technology has become a rich harvest of science.
The literary traditions of the human family go back to very ancient times. From
primitive poetry to the great epics and mythologies, ancient literature was
largely religious visions, powered by the human capacity for fantasy and verbal
expression that created great literature. Here again, the rise of modern science
had an enormous influence. If, in the 17th and
18th centuries, a poet like Pope extolled Newton and science, and a
writer like Jonathan Swift parodied it, in the course of the 19th,
many rebelled against the rigid logic and consequent success and adoration of
science, and called for a romantic abandon of proofs and experiments in the
quest for truth. In the 20th century there have been other efforts to
go beyond the so-called realism on which the scientific search seems to be
But then, the views
and discoveries of modern psychology as to the nature, intricacies, and
functioning of the human mind have found rich expression
plays and novels. Even giving due credit to the these
matters produced some of the masterpieces of literature,
one will have to grant that a great many literary works of our own times
have been inspired by modern scientific understanding
of human action and behavior. Then, of course, some poets and essayists have
transformed scientific findings into literary compositions. Add to all this the
considerable body of writing known as science fiction, and you have some idea of
the role of science in literature. Here too, some ancient writers have leaped
beyond the everyday reality of the world around, and fantasized on undreamed of
possibilities of their times, to create some wonderful situations. However,
the science fiction of today is has solid science as its basis.
as a quest for truth and understanding, has
always been a hand-maiden of science. Indeed, science itself used to be known as
natural philosophy. Its major theoretical branch of epistemology has been
seriously affected by the rise of modern science. Indeed, Rene Descartes, who is
sometimes regarded as a founder of modern philosophy, was no less one of the
founders of modern science. In the course of the 18th century, those
who wrote on causality, determinism, freewill, induction, deduction, the
capacity of the human mind to understand, etc., were all imbued in the science
of the times. Hume, Kant, Laplace, were all versed in 18th century
Epistemology is one of
the quintessential components of
philosophy. For ultimately, how we investigate truth, whatever it be, how can we
know anything at all, if we do not know what knowing and knowledge is.
It is deep probing into the nature of human knowledge about space and
time that inspired Ernst Mach and eventually enabled Albert Einstein to
formulate the theory of relativity.
And of course we all
know how our understanding of the microcosm with the rise of quantum physics and
the associated principle of indeterminacy gave rise to a host of epistemological
problems that have yet to be resolved to the
full satisfaction of everyone. Today no one can say or write anything
serious or significant in epistemology without some familiarity with the
discoveries and world views of quantum physics. Add to this, the cosmological
discoveries of the 20th century, and the astrophysical speculations
on the fundamental constants, leading to the celebrated anthropic principle, and
we have some idea of the role that science has played in the field of
What about a field
like Ethics which seems to be far removed from science which deals with
matter and motion, electricity and magnetism, physiology and neurology?
Certainly, most of the basic notions of ethics arose in the context of
religions. But science too has played a role our formulation and understanding
After all the
scientific enterprise itself functions on the basis of certain value systems:
such as the disinterested quest for truth, honesty in reporting, objectivity in
evaluating situations, etc. Then again, advances in human physiology and
psychology have revealed that adhering to some of the traditional ethical
injunctions can only have a positive impact on our overall well-being.
Finally, and this is seldom consciously or overtly recognized: the spirit of the Enlightenment - which is not viewed very favorably these days in certain circles - has resulted in many positive changes in human societies. The sense of justice and quality and the rejection of the notions of superiority of one race or creed over others, for example, are new notions which have emerged only after the Scientific Revolution. Gender equality, the demand for human rights, decency in international relations, all these have come about as a result of the more universal system of values that are consonant with the scientific world view and are contradictory to traditional perspectives of the human family which tend to be more parochial.
Finally, and most
importantly, as a result of the negative impacts of technology as well as the
globalization of trade, information and education, we have become aware of the
interconnectedness of the biosphere, of environmental factors, and of web of
life. Thus, science becomes relevant in the discussion of global ethics too.
A good deal has been
said and written about science and religion. After all, at one time the two were
intertwined in many cultures in inseparable ways. In our own times, as we all
know, the relationships between science and religion has been drawing more and
more attention by scholars. Whether one feels that the two have nothing in
common, or that they ultimately
lead to the same insights, or that they blatantly contradict each other, one
cannot be indifferent to the topic itself.
Less obvious topics
for discussion are science and sports, science and music, science and politics,
science and food, etc. for in each and every instance science has influenced the
growth and development of the field. Through loud-speakers and the radio or
computer imitations of Bach, music has been influenced.
Through vacuum-packaging and the microwave oven, food habits and cuisine
have been affected. The audio tape-recorder
has had significant impacts on politics.
The point is, there is not a single domain of human activity or culture in the modern world which has not been touched in one way or another by the rise of modern science. That is why a forum for the exploration of science and its impacts on and interrelations with the various aspects of culture would be of considerable interest in general, and of great importance if we wish to understand and appreciate the role that science has been playing during the past four centuries.