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Science as foundational inquiry into nature of Reality, Wisdom traditions, and Public Policy


By Professor Sudip Patra

 

Nature of Science and Eastern wisdom traditions


Is Science all about ‘shut up and calculate?’, is Science all about building the most delicate and mind bogglingly complex particle accelerators, or is Science all about furthering technological breakthroughs? If we go back to the founders of Western Science too, ranging from Galileo to Descartes to Newton to Einstein, who were in different ways committed to a realist view of Reality, we find they were primarily motivated by inquiring into deepest nature of reality, that was the motivation of doing science for the founders. Einstein didn’t conceive of his world-famous formulation of mass energy equivalence for building threats to humanity and ecology, namely, atom bombs or hydrogen bombs. Rather beauty, symmetry, and underlying laws of Physics were his guiding principles for doing Physics.


However, something foundational changed since World War II, along with the bomb, the way of doing science and perceiving science also changed for good. Particularly natural science was infused with a tremendous philosophy of positivism, which meant science as complex computations for building ever more technologically sophisticated society. When most of the western world was celebrating USA’s moon mission in 60s, there were a handful of critical thinkers, for example Hannah Arendt, who pointed out that this new science thinking has made us more control freak, looking at nature as utilizable resource only for creating ever more technocratic social systems. Even trans humanism or post humanism thinkings are also based on this new reading of science and technology. But the central question is what have we got after this stupendous success of new science and technology thinking? 


Even in the fields of foundational thinking in sciences, for example quantum foundations, or philosophy of sciences in general, realization is developing that fully objectivist realist and computation only view can not further help us to progress in scientific understanding of nature. Decades back in one important conversation between Einstein and Tagore, the latter tried to convince the former of Eastern spirituality or wisdom tradition views, which should also be the guiding principles for doing science. For example, consciousness is universal and science needs to incorporate a consciousness fundamental view of Reality. Einstein accepted that principle for subjective notions like beauty, but could not accept the same for the natural world in general, which reflected his deep commitment for scientific realist view. However, other masters of quantum science, namely, Bohr, or Pauli, or Schrodinger, or Heisenberg, later on Wigner to Bohm all reasoned that consciousness is needed to have a fuller understanding of nature. False separation between the observer and the observed has been questioned in the modern era also, for example through joint works of Bohm and Krishnamurti. More recent works of Donald Hoffman and Collaborators also take consciousness as the ontological starting point for understanding nature. 


Some interpretations of quantum mechanics, notably Relational Quantum Mechanics, get inspiration from the Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism, which calls for the idea of co-dependent arising. Hence according to this view of quantum mechanics, every conceivable property of any system is a relational property, actualized only via interaction, hence again the subject-object divide is no longer fully tenable. Another interpretation of quantum mechanics, QBism, holds that quantum mechanics is a guide book to navigate in the world for conscious decision makers. Hence in different senses new thinking about doing and understanding science has begun again, though the road ahead is long and burdened with status quo. 


Eastern wisdom traditions on the other hand, with all its dense and diverse histories, had no problem in incorporating consciousness as fundamental in inquiring about nature. It is well known that Advaita Vedanta in Indic traditions is the extreme consciousness fundamental school. Here the appearance of matter  is emergent in consciousness, rather than the other way round, which is the oft quoted ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Even mind is an experience in fundamental consciousness only way of thinking. There are other schools, for example, Syadvada in Jainism, which has an elaborate non-Boolean or multivalued logic framework, where unmanifest is a central condition of nature, hence a process view is described which is close to modern complexity science view. 


Public policy implications?


Impact of new ways of thinking about science, i.e. holistic in true sense, on the rest of the society, and ecology at large, can fructify only when there is a coordinated and cooperative effort at a global scale. Here comes the central importance of political leadership, and the proactive role of public policy architects. Certainly, for the last few decades ‘science-technology-policy’ has been a central focus of Governments across countries, academic institutions of repute all over are focused on delivering courses and conferences on the same. However, here the question is what kind of science is being promoted via such programs? The recent human development report of 2023, ‘unsettled lives’, has tried to break the mold of ‘Neoclassical-Utilitarian’ thinking about growth and development, and tried to incorporate insights from different sciences; complexity science, to cognitive science for example. At least an awareness is on rise that public policy design and different sciences have to be in harmony for sustainable development. Here we propose that the missing dimension in that needed effort is a new way of thinking about science itself. Anthropocene has been a favorite line of thinking recently, but why stop at that? Why not a public policy architecture based on concepts of a new science which is further based on principles of oneness and co-dependence? 


New thinking is on the rise, namely the quantum-like framework in social science, which strongly calls for such a holistic view, however Eastern wisdom traditions would provide the central reasoning for such a science. Certainly, we need to be academically rigorous, for example there needs to be concrete mathematical or logical frameworks to be built based on Eastern wisdom traditions, which then can gain confidence of scientists.  

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