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The Universality of Science: Examples from History

HOSSEIN MASOUMI HAMEDANI

Sharif University of Technology


The question of science’s ability to promote mutual understanding among different civilizations, nations, and social groups is closely related to the question of the universality of science. Those who view science merely as an anthropological phenomenon, a product of western culture, a subculture shared by those who belong to a specific community, or a language game played by those who know the rules of this game and thus are called scientists have little to do with mutual understanding through science. From that point of view, science is one of the many factors that divide humankind. Of course, we can still gain an understanding through the study of those different scientific traditions or activities that are labeled “science” in their respective societies, but the understanding gained in this way cannot help us achieve common ground. The best it can do is to prepare us to accept the existence of others or to tolerate their existence in a world with different cultures—especially one with different scientific cultures. So my paper explores a single question: How universal is science?

The question of the universality of science can be investigated through three aspects: the epistemological aspect, the social



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9 The Universality of Science: Examples from History HOSSEIN MASOUMI HAMEDANI Sharif University of Technology T he question of science’s ability to promote mutual under- standing among different civilizations, nations, and social groups is closely related to the question of the universality of science. Those who view science merely as an anthropological phenomenon, a product of western culture, a subculture shared by those who belong to a specific community, or a language game played by those who know the rules of this game and thus are called scientists have little to do with mutual understanding through science. From that point of view, science is one of the many factors that divide humankind. Of course, we can still gain an understanding through the study of those different scientific tra- ditions or activities that are labeled “science” in their respective societies, but the understanding gained in this way cannot help us achieve common ground. The best it can do is to prepare us to ac- cept the existence of others or to tolerate their existence in a world with different cultures—especially one with different scientific cultures. So my paper explores a single question: How universal is science? The question of the universality of science can be investi- gated through three aspects: the epistemological aspect, the social 57

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58 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING aspect, and the historical aspect. These three aspects are somewhat related. Before discussing the main subject of my investigation, which is the historical aspect, let me say a few words about the other two. The first aspect of the universality of science, the epistemo- logical aspect, concerns the logical status of scientific theories and results: To what degree are scientific results and scientific theories acceptable to every human being? The answer seems to be straight- forward enough. The universality of science is said to be due to the universality of its methods and the way its results are shared. The natural sciences are considered universal because they follow the scientific method and their results can be shared and understood by different human beings. Many schools of science philosophy de- fine these two properties as “intersubjectivity” and “testability of science.” At the root of this concept is the idea that scientific re- sults can be communicated in an unambiguous way and tested by anybody who wishes to do so. As far as simple, down-to-earth facts of science are concerned, the explanation of scientific meth- ods and results seems to be relatively simple. However, when it comes to more sophisticated theories and results, the task becomes very prohibitive. Scientific theories and facts are often expressed in the kind of mathematical language or theoretical jargon that is far removed from the vernacular and outside the experience of ordi- nary sensual perception. To understand a scientific theory and thus to be able to test it, one must belong to a defined scientific com- munity, master the language used by its members, and share the methodologies specific to that community. A way out of this dilemma is to state that scientific results are universally testable in principle. However, this statement does not solve the problem. One can always ask how this principle can be realized, and the answer brings us back to our starting point. The German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker suggests another criterion that seems more practicable. According to him, the universality of science is measured in terms of the trust we place in science. In everyday life, the layman has little direct contact with pure science. All he knows of science is its

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THE UNIVERSALITY OF SCIENCE: EXAMPLES FROM HISTORY 59 manifestation as technological product, and the layman usually trusts the workings of those products. He pushes an electrical but- ton; if the light does not turn on, he does not blame the science of electricity, but rather he thinks that something has gone wrong with the wires or switches. In this way he expresses his confidence in technology and, indirectly, in the science that lies behind this technology. If we accept this criterion, we can say that science is uni- versal because our trust in technology is universal. But the fact re- mains that most people know almost nothing about the science upon which their technology is based, so this kind of trust in tech- nology can be equivocated with a magical view about the manner in which these products work. We can suppose that there is a spirit at work behind every instrument. That is why Weizsäcker com- pares this kind of trust with that which people place in religion and deities. Therefore our trust in science-based technology is not equivalent to the idea of the universality of science unless it is combined with knowledge about how technological products func- tion. The theories of inter-subjectivity and the testability of sci- ence do not prove the universality of science but rather point to its potential. Science disciplines are potentially intersubjective, and scientific methods are potentially testable. These two potentialities can be actualized only through conscious human effort, and their realization depends on various factors that are not dictated only by the logic of science itself. For example, we can decide in principle between any two rival theories by doing a suitable experiment, which is usually called a crucial experiment. But in practice, to be able to perform an experiment demands many prerequisites. One has to have access to relevant technologies—to be able to build the necessary instruments—and these technologies are not always ac- cessible. Historical science presents us with many examples of theories that have had to remain undecided because the relevant experimental technology or instrumentation is not available. The

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60 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING question of the speed of light—whether light travels at a finite speed or instantaneously—is only one example. Thus, in its epistemological aspect, the universality of sci- ence expresses not a reality but rather an ideal. The potential for this ideal to become a reality depends on how much scientific knowledge human beings can possess. To put it another way, sci- ence is universal to the extent we want it to be universal. This brings us to the second aspect: the social aspect. Even if we agree with Descartes that reason is distributed among human beings in the most equitable way, we have to agree with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that nothing is distributed more unjustly than science. The produc- tion and distribution of science is far from equitable, and those who find themselves at the consumer end of scientific activity do not benefit from it in a just way. Moreover, the division between those who understand science and those who do not understand science separates not only continents and countries, but also socie- ties, even the most advanced societies. Paradoxically enough, the very same conditions that have brought the fruits of scientific ac- tivity to the layman have greatly contributed to this unjust situa- tion. By this, I mean the link between science and technology and the emergence of techno-science. The fact that the creation of knowledge often results in the creation of wealth has put certain limitations on the availability of scientific information, and this development has been harmful to the cultural aspect of science. I do not believe that everyone has to know everything. I do not believe that science is an ideology that has come to replace all other ideologies. I do not believe that there is a scientific solution for every problem or that science can put an end to every conceiv- able disagreement between human beings. Nevertheless, I believe that a certain amount of scientific knowledge and a certain per- spective inspired by science are necessary for every citizen of the modern world. This kind of scientific approach includes a sensibility to- ward concrete things, the ability to formulate relevant questions, and the search for the simplest ways to answer them. As far as my

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THE UNIVERSALITY OF SCIENCE: EXAMPLES FROM HISTORY 61 own country is concerned, I think that our educational system does not cultivate these qualities in our youth. Instead, it helps create a kind of scientific illiteracy, despite the large amount of science and mathematics taught in our high schools. Fighting against scientific illiteracy is part of the social re- sponsibility of every scientist. It is only by speaking with ordinary people and by explaining to them some basic scientific facts that science can recover at least a part of its lost universality. Now I am going to speak about the third aspect of the uni- versality of science, the historical aspect, and how the history of science can help us to share a more universal idea of science. Modern science emerged from the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as western Europe experi- enced a departure from some age-old habits of thought. To estab- lish itself as a legitimate means, and even as the solely legitimate means, of investigating the natural world, modern science had to fight against many existing theories, concepts, and outlooks. This has given rise to a certain kind of historiography of science with the following characteristics. • It represents the advent of modern science as a schism from all pre-existing modes of thought. Moreover this transformation is thought to have affected all disciplines in the same way. • Anything that had existed before the scientific revo- lution is considered to be nonscientific, or at best as part of the pre- history of modern science, which began in the seventeenth century. For prehistorical science, historians often refer to Ancient Greece, but even the Greek legacy is divided into two parts: some theories such as the atomistic theories are seen as “precursors” of modern science, while other theories are considered to be obstacles to an accurate understanding of the physical world. • Even those scientific theories that were created after the scientific revolution but were not compatible with mainstream science are considered to be vestiges of the past. For example, in

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62 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING his attack against the Cartesians, Voltaire accused them of believ- ing in occult practices and resorting to a kind of Aristotelism. • In its more recent versions, and under the influence of the formalist or logical concepts of mathematics, this kind of historiography recognizes a separation between mathematics and natural sciences. The development of natural sciences and the de- velopment of mathematics are told as two unrelated histories. The mathematical aspect of modern natural science is shadowed by its experimental aspect, and the latter is reduced to a simple use of senses. This last characteristic is considered to be the main divid- ing line between modern science and the wild speculations of the ancients. Thanks to the efforts of several generations of historians of science, this is no longer the history of science recognized by ex- pert historians. But unfortunately, it still remains the story of sci- ence told in popular expositions and shared by many practicing scientists. The result is that science is represented in an ethnocen- tric and anthropological way. The only significant difference is that science is not a set of bizarre practices common to the members of an isolated and primitive tribe, but a rational universal practice that is nevertheless restricted to a big, powerful tribe. In this kind of historiography of science, the birth of the new science is explained only by invoking some external elements. One example is the economic development and the emergence of new philosophies that occurred in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. In the first case, the history of science became a part of social and economic history; in the second case, a part of the history of philosophy. This trend in the historiography of science has given rise to a reaction among non-western countries, with each country trying to rewrite its own history of science. Consequently, this field has become a battleground for nationalistic and even chauvinistic ideas.

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THE UNIVERSALITY OF SCIENCE: EXAMPLES FROM HISTORY 63 Certain results of the new trend in the historiography of sci- ence help us have a more balanced idea of the universality of sci- ence. • Science is not western in origin; notwithstanding the great role played by ancient Greece’s contribution to science, there was no such a thing as a Greek miracle. In those disciplines at which the Greeks excelled—particularly mathematics and as- tronomy—they were deeply indebted to the scientific traditions of other cultures. • The Dark Ages were not so dark. Without the scien- tific developments that took place toward the end of the Middle Ages, modern science would have been inconceivable. • The role of Islamic civilization was not limited to the preservation of Greek scientific heritage and the subsequent passage of that heritage to Europe. Certain disciplines that emerged during the Islamic period and that have no counterpart in classical antiquity played a very decisive role in the constitution of modern science. Foremost among these was the science of algebra, which provided a more general concept of calculus and helped overcome the ancient dichotomy of continuous and discrete magnitudes. • The scientific revolution did not affect all the branches of science in the same way. Some scientific disciplines, optics for example, experienced continuity throughout Antiquity, the Islamic period, the late medieval period, and even well into the seventeenth century. At least until Johannes Kepler, the history of optics followed the same principles that had been laid out by Al- hazeni in the tenth century. In conclusion, the universality of science cannot be guaran- teed by its epistemological status alone. A truly universal science depends also on its accessibility to every man and woman and upon our recognition of its international origins.1 1 Editor’s note: Western science is based on the premise that the laws of na- ture are universal in that they are the same throughout the universe. To wit: a

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64 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING DISCUSSION Yousef Sobouti: Dr. Masoumi, you used the phrase “scien- tific illiteracy.” Can you explain in simpler words exactly what you mean by that? Masoumi Hamedani: In Iran, science is taught as if it has nothing to do with everyday life. It does not inspire curiosity in our children about the natural phenomena that surround them. Our children can solve any kind of conceivable mathematical equation, but they cannot give an estimate of the size of a phenomenon they encounter in nature. This is what I meant by scientific illiteracy. Another facet of scientific illiteracy that is more visible and more or less global is the rejection of scientific theory in favor of cultural and religious dogma. An example might be a molecular biologist who believes in creationism—there are such people. It is not certain that science is compatible with all ways of life and be- liefs. Glenn Schweitzer: Would you comment on the impact of television on scientific literacy? Do you think that television has brought some great changes in the way scientists proceed? Hamedani: In my view, Iranian television is good and pos- sibly the sole medium that exposes our youth to certain aspects of nature, wildlife, and natural phenomena. But I have no ready an- swer to your question, and at the international level it requires a vast investigation. stone falls identically in Tehran, Washington, or Tokyo. For the layman, and in particular for students in school, this may create a sense of universality in our world in spite of all conflicts and divergences between people. This is one rea- son why teaching science to schoolchildren is so important.