Philosopher and the scientific attitude!


Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

LET us start with fundamental question: What happens to a modern country that has more philosophers than scientists? Before one can attempt a cogent answer to this question it may perhaps be in order to go to the basics and attempt a definition of the two species in question. It is not going to be easy but why baulk? So here goes. How about a trick question: what do two plus two make? Please do not dismiss it as a gag, dear reader. The point one is trying to make is that the answer is not as simple as it would appear at first glance. The response, in effect, would differ depending on whom one is posing the question to. To the person in the street, the answer should be obvious enough. “Four”, he or she might well hasten to answer. The scientist, too, might quickly proffer the same answer and consider the matter as closed. Not so, if the respondent happens to be a philosopher or even an ardent student of what are loosely referred to as the liberal arts! Before one is accused of jumping to unwarranted conclusions, it may be of the essence to delve a bit deeper into the affair.
The scientist, let it be said, is pragmatic. He would rather go straight to the heart of the matter, avoiding all distractions. In crude terms, he would rather shoot from the hip, as it were. Vulgar it may appear to his detractors, but his approach is direct and to the point. For the scientist, let’s face it, the aspect that is of primary importance is not the process but the ultimate conclusion that it leads to. Not ‘how it got there’, but ‘what it proves’. In the view of the scientist, therefore, the whole exercise would have been futile – i.e. less than worthwhile – had no tangible conclusion been arrived at. The philosopher – if one may be excused for using American slang – is an entirely different kettle of fish. For him (or her) the thrill and excitement of the chase is more satisfying than the quarry itself. The philosopher would rather lose himself in the maze of reasoning and/or counter-argument than reach a quick conclusion, however remarkable that may be.
For the scientist, no argument is worthwhile unless it converges towards a definite goal; and one that is tangible enough to latch on to. The philosopher, on the contrary, would gladly expend his entire efforts following two parallel lines, ad infinitum, without the minimal desire to coax the two to converge at some point. The scientist’s response is bound to be terse and mundane – hardly exciting enough to produce a flutter of excitement. One would be better advised, therefore, to concentrate on the output of the philosopher. The latter would eschew shortcuts and logic, preferring, instead, to go to the very depth of the issue. He would begin by analysing each element thoroughly, stripping it to the bare essentials, so to speak. He would then proceed warily to consider the various ways of co-relating the divers elements, without, at the same time, neglecting the important issue of the weightage to be assigned to each of these elements.
Having thus tied himself up into knots, the philosopher would then proceed to probe the several possible approaches to the problem in an effort to arrive at a short list of priorities. His conclusion, if any, would thus be clothed in generalities and obscure verbiage, requiring a highly trained mind to unravel. Keeping the foregoing in mind, one can now attempt to pen down the ‘conclusion’ the philosopher would eventually arrive at. More often than not, his view would be as follows, or words to that effect: “The answer tends towards four, but then other, and by no means unimportant, variables come into play. These variables cannot be overlooked and may, thereby, sway the result one way or the other”. It would be a rash philosopher, indeed, who would deign to commit himself unconditionally to an unequivocal conclusion one way or the other!
If – as appears highly likely – the rather trite discussion in the preceding paragraphs has left the gentle reader gasping for breath, permit one to plead that one’s intentions are entirely honorable. And to make up for it, one should wish to end up with a rather amusing story. It so happened – so the story goes – that, in the Europe of the Middle Ages there lived a well-regarded philosopher who once presented a learned thesis on what he described as “a strange natural phenomenon”. His observation – that formed the center-piece of his dissertation – was that the introduction of a LIVE goldfish into a bowl of water does not add to the weight and volume of the liquid; whereas, should the goldfish in question happen to be DEAD, both the weight and the volume would register an increase. The philosopher’s treatise, that dwelt on this somewhat bizarre phenomenon at some length and in some depth, was studied with great interest by diverse other philosophers for decades on end. The latter, in their turn, made valuable contributions to the theory through several equally learned treatises.
This intellectual exercise went on for some two hundred years, without reaching any definite conclusion. During the course of this exciting period several reputations were made and unmade in the vast field of philosophy. Then, through a quirk of fate, the matter came to the attention of a scientist. This spoilsport promptly procured a bowl of water, a sensitive scale as well as a live gold fish and its dead counterpart. Carrying out the experiment, first using the live goldfish and then the dead one, he found that the weight of the bowl increased by the weight of the goldfish irrespective of its state! For the two centuries that the debate raged, no one had, it appears, ever thought of physically verifying the theory. One admits this is an interesting tale but certainly not one the authenticity of which can be vouched for. And now coming back to what one started with, does not the aforesaid touch a raw nerve? And does it not come uncomfortably close to the prevailing conditions in our blessed land? Or is one just ‘philosophising’?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.