Science and Culture


Science and Culture 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.

Technology: 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.

Literature: 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 based.

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.

Philosophy, 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 physics.

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 philosophy.

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 of ethics.

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.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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