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PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE AND HUMAN KNOWLEDGE by Asif Zaidi

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The spell of science is upon us all and we cannot deny it. Science stands out by dint of its practical uses, its detached approach, its impersonal viewpoint, and its ethical neutrality. Only the objective cosmic attitude of science can help us forego all other desires in order to fulfill the desire to know and confront the pitfalls, the besetting dogmas, and the inhibitions that stop our thinking from realizing its fullest potential.

Science –Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy etc.- carries its meaning on its face and its quest for knowledge is co-extensive with the entire field of human learning. Science initially evolved as a subject matter of philosophy. Scientists are the sages of our day just as the early Greek philosophers were the wise ones, who knew all there was to be known in their day. With the progress of human knowledge, specialization became inevitable as the branches of learning were detached from the parent stalks. The last of the sciences that was detached from Philosophy was Psychology.

Confined within our condition of finitude as humans, we cannot help reconstructing in our thoughts the relationship between our direct experience and the order of things that appears to control that experience. This makes us investigate how the ‘changing’ and ‘permanent’ elements in our experience are related. Science takes it as an obligation to think constantly about these seemingly conflicting facts of human experience. Hence, science is a mode of deciphering human experience in a rational way to discover what the truth of the matter is. A scientist is a man who sees life in its fullness, surveying not only all that there is but also which has yet to be.

Science keeps the specialized modes of perceiving truth within the sphere of their allotted jurisdiction and, overall, assists the human life in improving its quality and enabling power and the human spirit in understanding its own place in the scheme of things. All old forms of thought and belief have been dealt a deathblow by the progress made in the various fields of science and historical studies and rational foundations are being furnished for the fabric of human values. Archeology has opened up vistas in man’s past history. Modern Physics and Astronomy have shown man that he is not situated in the center of the Cosmos and is not the sole recipient of attention from Higher Powers. Instead he lives in a peripheral position on a tiny planet in the Universe.

The question for man today is not of obtaining external help but of undergoing internal transformation. And to achieve this higher being, man has to rely on his own resources. Therefore, as Ali Ibn Abi Talib explains, in each one of us the God has already placed a guide –as the voice of reason and of conscience- who, from the profoundest depths of our Being, calls our attention to the things that really count and demands our allegiance to the eternal law. The last of the Prophets, of an Abrahamic religion at least, declared that the age of revelation was over. Any Messiah anticipated by any religion is supposed to come to ‘wrap up’ the things and not to make a new start.  Man is no longer under tutelage. There is no need at all for prophets to come to guide him. He has outgrown his immaturity and has been declared free. He is free to make what he can of the time at his disposal. He has the option to walk upon the path to Truth or walk down the path to perdition. Ali Ibn Abi Talib describes that the only condition precedent set for the pursuit of man’s mission on earth is to ‘contemplate’, ‘reflect’, ‘reason’, ‘investigate’ and ‘consider’ all that he is a witness of and then he would find that the evidence of what he is called upon to do is engraved in the very layers of his own being as well as upon the face of the world that lies outside him. This is the reason Sa’adi rightly claimed: “The green leaf for the sight of the wise is like the book that furnishes knowledge of the Creator.”

From the age of Sophists in ancient Greece to modern times, human history has witnessed many times that lack of faith in the power of rational thought leads to intellectual anarchy and destruction through man’s indiscriminate use of his intellect. There is no other method for creating a durable foundation for human conduct, private and public, except using the power of rational thought. Its earliest demonstration was when the age of Sophists in ancient Greece was followed by the golden age of the liberators of mankind like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who recovered an ideological basis upon which to maintain ethical values and religious sentiments. In the post-modern era, we have questioned and successfully defied the insufficient sanctions on which our moral life has been reared. Unless we let the powers of rational thought once again provide a lasting basis for the values that make for human progress, peace, and prosperity, many parts of our civilization will continue to live in despair. In other words, lending a philosophical outlook to scientific progress has become a necessity.

As rational beings, we cannot be contented to own blind beliefs and be committed to a course of conduct based on beliefs whose very foundation and rationale we do not know. As we unravel the mysteries of the universe, we must also inculcate beliefs that strengthen our kinship with the world in which our lot is cast.  Yes, the questions such as the precise nature of human soul and of truth of spiritual life are yet to be adequately answered and thus the ideal of intellectual consistency lies still unachieved. However, we must learn to use scientific progress to engender in human mind a passion for evolving a synthetic attitude to life – to attain the highest expression of human knowledge to its ultimate end.

Science is a “divine delight” if I were to borrow Milton’s words “whose mode of thinking is more important than the fruits of its endeavor.” That we do not yet know, with any show of finality, the answers to many questions that have agitated the minds of many thinkers since Socrates, does not undermine the value of science. In fact it lends to its beauty. A scientist is indifferent to what the ultimate answer may be to what he is trying to understand. He looks all his facts in the face, without hope and fear and regardless of emotional, religious, or mystical partiality. All he is concerned with is truth and no other consideration. When the great German thinker, Friedrich von Schelling, was asked whether he would prefer to have all the knowledge to which a man may lay claim or to have merely the desire to know, he responded that he wanted to have the desire to know rather than the full knowledge of a man in its final form. And, as we can all feel, his answer was the right one.

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