Attributes of scientific temper

The inculcation of Scientific Temper in our society would result in our people becoming rational and objective, thereby generating a climate favouring an egalitarian, democratic, secular and universalist outlook.

Spread of Scientific Temper in society is much more than the spread of science or technology. Scientific Temper is neither a collection of knowledge or facts, although it promotes such knowledge; nor is it rationalism although it promotes rational thinking. It is something more. It is an attitude of mind which calls for a particular outlook and pattern of behaviour. It is of universal applicability and has to permeate through our society as the dominant value system powerfully influencing the way we think and approach our problems- political, social, economic, cultural and educational.

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Scientific Temper involves the acceptance, amongst others, of the following premises:
a)     that the method of science provides a viable method of acquiring knowledge;
b)    that human problems can be understood and solved in terms of knowledge gained through the application of the method of science;
c)     that the fullest use of the method of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human endeavour from ethics to politics and economics- is essential for ensuring human survival and progress; and
d)    That one should accept knowledge gained through the application of the method of science as the closest approximation to truth at that time, and question what is incompatible with such knowledge; and that one should from time to time re-examine the basic foundations of contemporary knowledge.

The method of science, therefore, constitutes a regenerative process for collecting information and processing the collected information to create meaningful patterns leading to an ordered understanding of nature of man himself, his natural and social environment. In this sense, the method of science encompasses all aspects of communicable human knowledge and cuts across all artificial compartmentalisation like natural science, social science, applied science, etc.

The spirit of inquiry and the acceptance of the right to question and be questioned are fundamental to Scientific Temper. It calls upon one to ask the ‘how’, the ‘what’, and the ‘why’ of an object, event or phenomenon. It further calls upon one to exercise the right to question, provided of course, the questioning of an existing theory, hypothesis or statement or social situation is done in accordance with the scientific method and is not merely a bare assertion of one’s belief. Scientific Temper is, therefore, incompatible with the acceptance of authorities of all ‘king’ or of ‘high priests’ who may not be questioned. It leads to the realisation that events occur as a result of interplay of understandable and describable natural and social forces and not because someone, however great, so ordained them. These forces are often complex and intertwined and have to be analytically disentangled.

Scientific Temper is compatible with observation and insight, reasoning and intuition, systematic work and creative impulse. It gives rise to an attitude of mind which while being conscious of vast areas of ignorance, is nevertheless, optimistic about human ability to gradually unravel the mysteries that surround us. In this process, Scientific Temper becomes a part of the culture, a philosophy, and a way of life which leads to pursuit of truth without prejudgement.

Scientific Temper implies the recognition that knowledge often progresses by disproving earlier ideas, beliefs, theories and laws. It considers knowledge as open ended and ever-evolving. It lays emphasis on verifiability and repeatability, wherever possible, and on the fact that scientific theories, laws and facts allow one to make predictions which can be tested. It recognises that answers to many question that may be asked at any given time, may not be available at that time. It, then, demands the courage and humility to say, ‘I do not know’.

Scientific Temper calls for recognition of the several major differences between the scientific attitude and the theological and metaphysical attitude especially in respect of dogmas proclaimed in the name of religion. There is in fact, essential incompatibility of all dogmas with science. While science is universal, established religions and religious dogmas are divisive. Consider the divisions which exist between Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu denominations. Science, in contrast, transcends divisions and is universal.

Scientific Temper has deep emotional content and has, within it, a sense of beauty. That is why consideration based on beauty and simplicity has been often invoked to choose between alternative theories that are otherwise equally tenable.

Inherent in Scientific Temper is a system of value judgements. The inculcation of Scientific Temper in our society would result in our people becoming rational and objective, thereby generating a climate favouring an egalitarian, democratic, secular and universalist outlook. Consequently, Scientific Temper cannot flourish in a grossly inegalitarian society where 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and almost 70 per cent of out people, especially females, are illiterate. Social justice, widespread education and unrestricted communication are, therefore, pre-requisites for spread of Scientific Temper and for optimising the results of science and technology.

(This extract is part 2 of a 3 part series from the essay “A statement on scientific temper”. Read part 1 here.)

Photo: Adam Thomas