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Science and Indian Philosophy

Science and Indian Philosophy Indian Philosophy and Philosophy of Science by Sundar Sarukkai; PHISPC, Centre for Studies in Civilisations, New Delhi, 2005;


Science and Indian Philosophy

Indian Philosophy and Philosophy of Science

by Sundar Sarukkai; PHISPC, Centre for Studies in Civilisations, New Delhi, 2005; pp 273, Rs 450.


his treatise explores virgin territory in that it aims at highlighting the significance of some of the important themes in Indian logic, epistemology and semiotics for a philosophy of science. The treatment is masterly and is characterised by clarity of thought and expression. While some of the conclusions and claims of the author may not meet with widespread acceptance, his arguments are, in the main, persuasive.

The introductory chapter offers a foretaste of the style and stance of the author and presents a thoroughly satisfying bird’seye view of the scope of the book.

At the outset, Sarukkai meets, head on, two traditional claims made in behalf of classical Indian science. The first is that our forebears did have an understanding of the scientific temper – “as manifested in their advanced theories in mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, linguistics and so on” (p 1). While he does not imply that such a claim is unexceptionable, he concedes that it is verifiable on the basis of the substantial documentation available.

The second claim he adverts to is something that most Indian practitioners of science today are rather uncomfortable with. This, to quote the author once more, is that “some concepts in modern science, particularly in quantum theory and cosmology, are described by and anticipated in ancient Indian thought” (p 1). In the opinion of the present writer, Sarukkai takes the thoroughly justifiable stand that this “is not only a contentious claim but also one that is untenable or even undesirable” (p 1).

One is amused by Sarukkai’s unhappiness over the “unreasonable dependence on Greek philosophy in philosophy of science” (p 2). To say the least, this is being unrealistic. If one traces the origins of what, today, is recognised as science, it is found to be very much a product of western culture and as such has its beginnings in ancient Greek civilisation. To the Greeks, philosophy, as understood from the time of Thales (639-544BC), encompassed all of knowledge-metaphysical or otherwise. Naturally, arising as it did out of Greek philosophy, science’s philosophical foundations are bound to be rooted in it. Is it any wonder then that Greek philosophy plays such a defining role in shaping a philosophy of science? If there are other philosophical traditions belonging to other cultures that bear relevance to a philosophy of science, then, surely, the onus is on their protagonists to make their case – as, indeed the author has done in this work.

It is not often, one suspects, that a learned tome on philosophy of science finds its way, for purposes of review, into the hands of someone who has actually practised science – though, in the present instance, pretty much as a foot soldier. Not to be too autobiographical, the experience of practising reductionist biology in the area of mammalian endocrinology obligated the present author to make what to him was an arduous foray into the realm of philosophy of science, more especially philosophy of biology, frustrated as he became with the limitations of a reductionist approach. It was, therefore, with great expectations of finding answers to his own dilemma and, in general, of a broad-based assessment of the implications of his scholarly study for biology as a whole, that the present writer turned to an examination of Sarukkai’s text.

Reductionism andReductionism andReductionism andReductionism andReductionism and
Its ContradictionsIts ContradictionsIts ContradictionsIts ContradictionsIts Contradictions

The overall impression one gains from a perusal of the treatise is that to Sarukkai, what he calls “natural science” begins with mathematics – “the queen of the sciences” – and ends with physics, notably quantum mechanics. He is willing to accord the status of science to chemistry too and to those areas of biology that are reducible to chemistry and thence to physics. For the most part, his discussion of the relevance of Indian philosophical thought to a philosophy of science betrays a preoccupation with the physical sciences. The bulk of biology – “holistic”, “organismal”

– leaves him cold. All he can say of this brand of biology is that, in any case, it derives, in the ultimate analysis, from chemistry through to quantum physics. According to him, the most meaningful statements in science can only be made in mathematical terms. That an eminent biologist, Vidyanand Nanjundiah, has offered convincing arguments in support of the limited relevance of mathematics to biology – on two separate occasions, in what could be termed “symposia in print”, on the role of mathematics in the sciences, to which Sarukkai himself is a contributor – does not appear to have made any impression on him.

In effect, he is willing to exercise his philosophical acumen only to such areas in science as lend themselves to reduction to a limited set of mathematical equations from which, presumably, all the detailed phenomenology of the particular discipline can be derived. Surely, it should occur to Sarukkai that this is rarely feasible. Take quantum mechanics, for example. This enables one to work out the structure of the hydrogen atom. However, try applying it to that of benzene – this is simply not possible without introducing an array of arbitrary, simplifying assumptions.

Such a situation arises because, in order to make the derivation of appropriate mathematical equations feasible, phenomenological details are sacrificed at the altar of generalisation. This approach may well suit those, like the quantum physicists, who seek to probe the nature of Reality. Unfortunately, however, this is of little help to the organismal biologist, for instance, whose ambition is more modest in that he is seeking to understand Nature. To him details are important, are significant and cannot be swept under the carpet in order to obtain a generalisation capable of being expressed in a mathematical formula. For example, an evolutionary biologist would like an answer to the conundrum

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006 of why, following the extraordinary flowering of a variety of types of horses in the Miocene epoch, we have today just the one Equus – something that cannot be derived from a set of mathematical equations. There is a contrast here: the continuing reductionism of the physical sciences and the full-blooded syncretism of biology that also embraces chemistry. Blinded by the twin arc-lights of mathematics and physics, the author, regretfully, appears to be unaware of the philosophical ferment that characterises today’s biology.

So, quite clearly, this book is not addressed to the multitude of practising biologists. How about the others – physicists, chemists and the like? To me it appears that only theoretical physicists may find some of the discussions of relevance to their interests. Otherwise, the book caters to the elite circle of philosophers – those who would equate philosophy of science, “in a most general description”, with philosophising in the age of science – implying a preoccupation with the impact of science on epistemology, ontology and so forth. In this last respect, needless to add, the performance of the author is indeed impeccable.

A contentious issue is raised by the author through his claim that “certain aspects of Indian philosophy are not only relevant to a foundationalist description of science, but that they also share something in common with scientific methodology” (p 9)

– subjects dealt with in elaborate detail in chapter 5 ‘Science in Logic: the Indian Way’. Surely, scientific methodology is not mere cerebral involvement with the phenomenological world but necessitates actually dirtying one’s hands either in the lab or in the field!

By far the meatiest chapter in the book is the last one. It deals with the parallels and contrasts between Indian philosophical traditions – particularly the pramana theory as espoused by the Naiyayikas – and science in the matter of obtaining “knowledge” and assessing its “truth”. As the author rightly points out, the “theme of truth is particularly important because of science’s engagement with truth is at the heart of the scientific enterprise” (p 209).

While western epistemology is preoccupied with the problem of how to convert justified true belief into knowledge, the pramanas – i e, the Indian theories of knowledge – are more pragmatic and in this respect, are closer to the “simplistic” pragmatic approach of science. InSarukkai’s words, “…Nyaya and science share a commitment to realism…” (p 219). This thesis is well argued and is convincing.

Finally, we come to the informed and enlightening discussion on the place of language in the Indian philosopher’s scheme of things. The only topic this reviewer wishes to highlight is that on “science, effability and Bhartrhari”, dealing with the question whether all knowledge is expressible in language. Nyaya, apparently, takes the view that there is “no knowledge beyond linguistic description…” Sarukkai agrees with this in respect of science too. This does seem strange to the present writer – and on two counts. Taking the Nyaya stand in the context of its relevance to philosophy of the classical times – including, as it did, metaphysics

– how does one reconcile this claim with the situation as expressed in the following passage: “[There’s] difficulty in reading and experiencing the Truth from the Scriptures directly…Words can only bring about certain intended disturbances in the minds of the listeners…Thus, in transacting mutually known experiences, language can be a handy medium of sound. But when it is employed to convey the experiences of one to another who has known nothing similar to it, the conveyance becomes difficult. Therefore, it was insisted that the teacher and the taught should get themselves fully attuned to each other before the master’s words could bring about the required emphasis of the goal for the disciples…” (Discourses on Taittiriya Upanishad, Swami Chinmayananda, Chinmaya Publication Trust, Madras (1962) p ix). So much for the role of language in the classical age when metaphysics was a major preoccupation for Indian philosophers.

What about the world of science as we know it today? Would one agree with Sarukkai’s assessment? This writer, for one, cannot. Take the case of particle physics. Take the very term “quantum chromodynamics”. Take such terms as “charmed” particles gluons…! Clearly, the language here is metaphorical. As to biology, of which the learned philosopher is quite dismissive, disciplines such as ethology, socio-biology and even evolution are full of statements that can only be termed metaphorical.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, 1999, p 3) go one step further and claim that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

So what, in the final analysis, is the present reviewer’s assessment of Sarukkai’s treatise? It takes the reader on an exciting intellectual adventure, through a philosophical discourse that is enlightening even as it is controversial. What more can anyone ask for in a tract of this kind?



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