By Siddhartha Mitra
Jawaharlal Nehru is credited with coining the term ‘scientific temper’ and was used for the first time in his book The Discovery of India. ‘Scientific temper’ is often defined as ‘rational behaviour devoid of superstition’ but an elaboration of this definition is needed as terms such as ‘rational behaviour’ are often misunderstood, misused and reduced to emptiness. It is not unusual to find parties embroiled in a dispute accusing each other of irrational behaviour.
Though Nehru deserves credit for doing his utmost to foster scientific thinking in newly independent India, the need for people to adopt a scientific approach in their behaviour and thinking predates Nehru. Before Nehru, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore had all in different ways pointed out this need. What is less well known is that the importance given by Einstein to ‘deductivism’ (an approach closely linked to the cultivation of scientific temper) was inspired by the works of the 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, a lens grinder by occupation who pursued scholarship only in his leisure time.
At present, American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most well-known scholars advocating a ‘scientific approach’ to human behaviour. He claims that the wellbeing of society, and the future of the planet and the human race hinges on the development of a ‘scientific temper’.
Understanding ‘scientific temper’
What then is a good definition of ‘scientific temper’? It can be defined as an approach in which new beliefs are formed on the basis of ‘reason’. Whenever a new piece of information is conveyed to a person with a scientific temper, their belief in this information would depend on whether this piece is consistent with ‘knowledge’ or is implied by it. We define ’knowledge’ as the sum of obviously true statements, derivatives of obviously true statements, or events whose happening has been perceived directly and incontrovertibly with our senses.
An example of an obvious truth is the following: on adding the same number (say 2) to any two unequal numbers (say 4 and 6) the new number arising from the greater of the two initial numbers (in this case, 8=6+2) is in turn greater than the number arising from the lesser of the two initial numbers (6=4+2). Such obvious truths are known as axioms. An amazing fact that is not well known is that the vast human knowledge of real numbers has been derived from only four such ‘axioms’—for each and every statement or proposition in this stock of knowledge to be true the maximum that we need is the truth of these axioms.
A rigorous way to build up a stock of knowledge is to allow free thinking and then to accept a statement as an axiom if it is accepted by everybody. Thus, the statement “God exists” cannot be taken as an axiom as a true democracy will certainly consist of atheists and agnostics who deny or are sceptical about the existence of God.
‘Deductivism’ is an approach used to derive new statements from the statements existing in one’s stock of knowledge. Thus, a deduced statement is one whose truth will not contradict the truth of any of the constituents of the existing stock of knowledge.
‘Direct and incontrovertible perception of an event through the senses’ again needs defining. If I saw my neighbour’s house burning at 8 p.m. last night, then I am sure that this event has happened and therefore it belongs to my stock of knowledge. However, if I tell my friend about it, strictly speaking, it should not be considered by my friend as part of his stock of knowledge as I could be lying. Thus, while visual evidence such as photographs and videos can help to augment everybody’s stock of knowledge and therefore society’s stock, eyewitness accounts cannot, rigorously speaking, do so.
Is a knowledgeable person therefore cut and dried and not given to bouts of imagination? Quite the opposite. The discovery of the theory of relativity originated from Einstein’s teenage preoccupation of imagining himself travelling while perched on a beam of light. The theory was therefore an outcome of knowledge combined with imagination that would boggle the layman’s mind. Much later, in 1929, in an interview to the Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine, Einstein remarked: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Einstein was obviously influenced by the important role played by his teenage imagination to his contributions to the global stock of knowledge. His biographer Walter Isaacson devotes a lot of space to the important role played by Einstein’s deductive powers in his research. If both Einstein and Isaacson are correct, then the former’s discoveries emerged from a combination of imagination and deductivism.
How can knowledge and imagination complement each other? A knowledgeable person, being well versed in ‘deductivism’, would appreciate that there are many statements outside her stock of knowledge that are possibly true. Imagination helps to conjure up many scenarios and statements outside one’s present stock of knowledge and ‘deductivism’ helps to weed out those that are inconsistent with that stock and admit those that are consistent as ‘possibilities’.
Here an ‘inconsistent statement’ is one that cannot be true unless at least one of the statements in the existing stock of knowledge is untrue. The statement ‘’3 is less than 2’’ is ‘inconsistent’ if the following statements form part of our stock of knowledge: “1 is greater than 0”, and the previously stated axiom about an inequality not undergoing any change with the addition of the same number to both sides. ‘Consistency’ obviously is the absence of ‘inconsistency’.
Thus, imagination throws up new statements and scenarios and ‘deductivism’ helps to classify them into those that are ‘consistent’ and ‘inconsistent’ with the stock of knowledge. ‘Consistent statements’ in turn can be classified as those which can be deduced from the existing stock of knowledge and those that cannot be so deduced.
The existence of aliens with senses different from ours is a possibility that is not considered by leading scientists as ‘inconsistent’ with our stock of knowledge. Therefore, it is consistent with this stock. At the same time we cannot deduce the existence of aliens from our stock of knowledge. Hence we do not ‘know’ that they do exist.
Thus, the stock of knowledge expands and human civilisation proceeds through human efforts to combine observation, deduction and imagination. People with a scientific temper do not believe in statements that are a product of somebody’s imagination but are not supported by deduction or observation.
Living with a scientific temper
Scientific temper is not only important for scientists and other scholars but also for the common man. A person with a scientific temper driving a car on a highway will not stop if he sees a black cat cross the street as the ‘need to stop after coming across a black cat’ cannot be seen as rightfully belonging to any existing or potential stock of knowledge. The absence of superstitions, coincident with a ‘scientific temper’, can thus stop accidents and more broadly speaking help us to lead more productive lives.
A scientific temper can also help us to enhance the rate at which we become enlightened as a species: for example, to not disregard the mounting evidence regarding climate change; and to not cultivate dangerous feelings of racial or national superiority totally contradicted by findings in genetics.
In other words, before we try to save or correct the world we should conduct a reality check on ourselves to see how ‘scientific’ our ‘temper’ is.
Siddhartha Mitra is Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University.