Modern science today is often considered the paradigmatic case of objective knowledge. Its success in technological innovations which have led to improvements in our standards of living, is often the only evidence required to justify its claims to superiority. In addition to that; it is a well established fact that modern science in its current form and content owes a great debt to scientists from the west. These two beliefs (which still require extensive qualification) then lead to two conditions: One is that science becomes classified as western science and secondly this western science is the only reliable method for objective knowledge about reality. Okere’s (2012) essay, is a critique against this position aiming to demonstrate that there is not one science; and it is not western. My essay will argue that Okere is partially successful in his project. I agree with Okere that science is not western in its entirety. Various traditions and regions throughout history have contributed important elements that were necessary for the development of science. However, his criticisms against modern science fail because they are aimed towards the wrong target; it is scientism that is guilty of the charges that Okere throws towards science. Lastly his idea of pluralism in science I find to be a bit unclear and imprecise, and would warrant further clarification and development.
How many sciences?
Everyone knows what science is until you have to precisely define it. The philosophy of science ranging from Naïve Inductivism, Logical Positivism, Popper’s Falsificationism, Kuhn’s Science as a Paradigm to Lakatos’ Science as a Research Program have been sophisticated attempts to do just that (Chalmers 2013). Okere (2012) begins with describing how there are three different levels of science. Firstly, there is the etymological level of science derived from the Latin Scientia which means knowledge in a broad sense. This level is irrelevant for our discussions because it is too broad and does not capture the uniqueness of how the term science is employed today. The second level of science, is what I will term an Aristotelian account of science. Okere explains how Aristotle observed that reality consists of different kinds of beings each with their distinctive modes of being: inanimate matter, plants, animals and human beings. Each distinct kind of phenomena could be an object of systematic study elucidating its principles and causes. This naturally leads to the possibility of various disciplines such as mathematics, physics, psychology, economics, history etc as distinct and valid sciences. Each discipline will have its basic principles and methodology for obtaining knowledge. According to Aristotelian science then there is not one science but many. This then means also that none is more privileged than the other because their proper objects of study are different.
The third level of science Okere refers to as modern science. It is very narrow and restricted in its definition of what counts as science referring mainly to physics, astronomy and chemistry – those fields most apt for quantitative and mathematical modelling. Another important feature of modern science is that it is often considered entirely western tracing its origins to the enlightenment period when Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus brought about a revolution in science (Okere 2012:209). What marked modern science as unique was the idea that only quantitative knowledge was objective and that qualities of bodies were not sources of objective knowledge but were rather subjective (Ibid).
Okere goes on to say that the “contribution of the Western tradition cannot be overestimated” and that it “remains unrivalled” however it has not been an achievement done in isolation throughout history. Many traditions have contributed to the shaping of modern science. Berggren (2013: 83) illustrates in great detail how Medieval Islamic mathematicians advanced the fields of algebra, trigonometry and geometry which would become essential to the development of modern science.
We can agree that the west reached a critical mass resulting in the exponential growth of modern science and its impact on society, however to reach that critical point various traditions had to nurture and contribute towards it.
Deflating modern science
An important part of Okere’s work is deflating the prestige that modern science has in order to allow other knowledge traditions that have been marginalised by modern science to contribute as well. However, I find his criticism of modern science fails to demonstrate its true weaknesses. His first major criticism is that science’s own technological success has been its downfall because it has become “a science for the materially useful and less the science in quest of the true…in so restricting itself, it has become less than itself” (Okere 2012:213). It seems to me an odd criticism to make because great knowledge has been obtained about matter and the universe, exemplified by theories like quantum mechanics and general relativity. Do these not count as true knowledge about the nature of our cosmos? Secondly, Okere criticizes science for being incapable of explaining beauty, values, spirit, mind, good and evil. However, that is not a valid criticism precisely because science excludes and narrows its field of vision – it never was supposed to handle those questions. It is similar to criticizing a metal detector for failing to detect wood or plastic.
A third criticism raised by Okere is that science has often been a cloak for philosophical and ontological claims such as materialism and empiricism that go beyond the science itself. This is a valid point particularly because Newton and Boyle for example in addition to their scientific work also re-conceptualized nature as a mechanical device overthrowing the Aristotelian/Scholastic conception of nature (Cooke 2001). One might be tempted to think that the validity of their scientific work entails the acceptance of their philosophy of nature. Hilary Putnam captures this sentiment with great eloquence:
“For the last three centuries a certain metaphysical picture suggested by Newtonian or Galilean physics has been repeatedly confused with physics itself… Philosophers who love that picture do not have very much incentive to point out the confusion – if a philosophical picture is taken to be the picture endorsed by science, then attacks on the picture will seem to be attacks on science, and few philosophers will wish to be seen as enemies of science” (Putnam cited in Feser 2011)
The real culprit that Okere should be aiming his criticism towards is what Jürgen Habermas calls scientism – the claim that only mechanically causal explanations in terms of laws or principles count as knowledge (Cherem, n.d.). It is scientism, rather than modern science, which claims that scientific methods are the most superior and that whatever science cannot explain is not an object of knowledge. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russel once echoed this sentiment saying that “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know”. There are number of problems with scientism which are well known, I will briefly sketch a few important ones. Firstly, scientism is self-refuting because the claim itself that science is the only source of objective knowledge is not a scientific statement attained through scientific experiments but it is philosophical. Secondly science relies on philosophical presuppositions essential to it. Regarding our rational faculties – we assume they are reliable and able to grasp how things are. Science also presupposes that the world is in itself intelligible and rationally ordered and subject to be understood – we do not think that oxygen will for no reason and without cause suddenly behave like an acid tomorrow. All these presuppositions are not scientific and require philosophical justification, clearly then scientism is untenable – science is not the only source of objective knowledge.
A major line of criticism taken by Okere relies on Thomas Kuhn’s work. Okere (2012:214) argues that Kuhn has demonstrated how paradigms govern science; that it is a social activity situated in particular historical contexts, interests and values as opposed to a purely, objective, neutral process . Okere then argues that modern science is incomplete, inadequate and that it can no longer claim universal validity. This applies to the apex of modern science, physics which consist of “internal contradictions”. I must disagree with Okere. Firstly, he draws conclusions from Kuhn’s work which are not warranted. We can agree that there have been cultural interests, historical and social contexts which have influenced modern science however that does not necessarily mean the process is rendered incapable of universally valid knowledge. Kuhn himself thought that science objectively progressed through better paradigms replacing old paradigms (Chalmers 2013:114). This progress must be taken to mean a better and more accurate understanding of how certain phenomena behave universally. Secondly, Okere does not explain precisely what internal contradictions in physics have led to its claims no longer being universally valid. Does universally not valid mean that physics is now relative? Are the current discoveries of physics such as the Higgs Boson not true for Asian or African but only true for the Western discoverers?
Lastly, it is unclear what a pluralism in science entails. The science of physics whether practiced by Westerners, Africans, or Asians should advance knowledge in that domain. Scientists should have the freedom to take different lines of enquiry on solving scientific puzzles and in that sense a pluralism in thinking is essential. I do not think pluralism means each particular culture or group starting from the ground up to construct their own physics for example: a western physics, Asian physics or African physics. Each particular science has its domain where its knowledge is universally valid. Chemistry, biology, astronomy all seek to uncover knowledge of those particular phenomena that applies universally. Perhaps a more fruitful avenue for where different knowledge traditions and worldviews are required is on questions of value and ethics in science. Research in human embryo and experimentation is an example of where different worldviews and presuppositions are required in determining the ethical validity of the scientific work and what the limits should be.
I have argued that Okere’s argument is partly correct. His first tenet is that there are many sciences and not just one. There are various autonomous phenomena each with their own unique set of principles which can form a systematic body of knowledge. Physics, chemistry, biology, economics can all be broadly constructed as sciences or disciplines aiming at true knowledge. A number of different traditions have contributed towards the sciences and therefore it is not the west alone which is responsible for science. The second tenet of Okere’s is a criticism of modern science which fails in two basic ways. One is that it aims at the wrong culprit; the real culprit is scientism which is a philosophical worldview that only causal mechanical explanations in terms of laws constitute objective meaningful knowledge and other kinds of knowledge such as in ethics and beauty are meaningless. The second failure of Okere’s criticism is that Kuhn’s Theory of Structure, does not warrant the conclusions Okere draws that modern science is inadequate and no longer universally valid. The situating of modern science within its social and historical context does not necessarily undermine its ability to yield true knowledge about nature. The integration of knowledge traditions alongside science requires an articulation of the respective domains of each kind of knowledge. Chemistry will be chemistry whether practiced by westerners or Africans – each group can participate in advancing the field – there can be no plurality of chemistry that fails to cohere with another. Lastly different knowledge traditions are essential in debating the value, ethics and direction of scientific research and it is in this domain where a plurality becomes critical.
- Berggren, J., 2013. Islamic Mathematics. In Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2 Medieval Science edited by D. C. Lindberg & M. H. Shank, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 62-83.
- Chalmers, A., 2013. What Is This Thing Called Science?. 4th ed. Berkshire: Open University Press.
- Cherem, M., n.d. Jurgen Habermas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/habermas/
[Accessed 28 March 2018].
- Cooke, M. G., 2001. Divine Artifice and Natural Mechanism: Robert Boyle’s Mechanical Philosophy of Nature. Osiris, 16:133-150.
- Feser, E., 2011. Putnam on causation, intentionality, and Aristotle. [Online]
Available at: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.za/2011/02/putnam-on-causation-intentionality-and.html
[Accessed 28 March 2018].
- Okere, T., 2012. Is There One Science, Western Science?, in Readings in Contemporary African Philosophy edited by P. Mungwini, M. Koenane & E. Mkhwanazi, Pretoria: University of South Africa, 206-220.