The problem of Revolution in Science

Scientific Revolution is a both a popular and theoretical field of interest in the epistemological domain of Science. Right from Copernicus to Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Einstein, Feynman, and others have iconic status in our society because of the epistemic breaks they were able to bring with their work. However, the discourse on revolution is not as simplistic as it is made to be, in the popular media.  Just looking at the above listed names tells us something about the euro-centric bias of this idea. I would have loved to add Aryabhatta, Nilakantha and JC Bose to the list but it would be heavily contested whether these people led to any scientific ‘revolution’ as such. And I would not contest these claims as the idea of revolution itself has emerged in a western context which may be of little interest for the non-western society.

The final discussion on the day one of science conference at Manipal encouraged some interesting discussions on the interaction of science with civilizations, religions and cultures which led to the birth of modern science. Lesley problematized the idea of revolution and specifically the revolution of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It is argued that there have been gradual changes over centuries and it is not very accurate to pin point one shift as revolution and prioritize it over other shifts. However, it is still argued that there has been a recognizable rupture which led to the birth of modern science. So now the question arise why this rupture and growth of scientific knowledge happened only in the west and not in other societies. Arun argues that the birth of modern science in the West hasn’t been an activity in isolation but instead it has come due to its constant interaction with Indian, Arabic and Chinese ideas of science and mathematics. However, it still doesn’t explain why this circulation of ideas led to a scientific revolution in the west and not in non-west. Arun claims that it was due to the socio-economic-political situation during the fourteenth and fifteenth century when Arabs, Indians and Chinese were engaged in trade from which the Europeans were generally excluded because of their geographical position. This led to a great desire to produce navigation tools which could have happened only with the increase in knowledge production which eventually led to the birth of modern science.

The above arguments does provide a compelling account of scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. However, the desire of find something ‘revolutionary’ is to be scrutinized closely. Is it not intriguing that the westerners who have always desired to find a revolution in these epistemic shifts found one. Whereas non-westerners who may not have been interested to find a ‘revolution’, of course didn’t find one. And now that west has tried to underscore the significance of revolution in science that there is a pressure on non-western societies to come up with their own claims of what can be called revolution and become part of the dominant epistemology. It looks similar to a case of two kids, one having a red ball and another green ball. The kid with the red ball teases the other kid that she doesn’t have a red ball which pushes the later to paint her ball red and show that she also has a red ball. So we can discuss whether it is right or wrong for the kid to paint her ball red and criticize or sympathize with her. Or the other thing that we can do is question the validity of the importance  given to the red ball in the first place. The kid with the green ball could have just replied to the other kid that its ok that you have a red ball and I have a green ball and there is no need to place the importance of one ball over another.

We can try to push for a similar argument in the case of revolution but the case is more problematic because of the power hierarchies developed over epistemological validity. This leads to a constant struggle and tension in the non-western society to come up with their claims of scientific knowledge in their own traditions. However, we may realize that this activity is as fruitless as the kid painting her green ball red. Moreover, the scientific paradigm has been the dominant episteme for mere four-five centuries which is minute compared to the entire history of humankind. It came due to the desire of understanding, controlling and manipulating nature. It is very much possible that a new desire in the human consciousness can lead to a new episteme which will replace the scientific paradigm in the way similar to how it replaced the earlier religious paradigm. And in this new paradigm, another civilization which may be Asian, African or South American can become the dominant one (like the contemporary Western one) and then they will replace the present struggle between the west and non-west with something new. Thus the debate over scientific revolution is various traditions can’t be as simply understood as we often try to do. The issue has to be understood in the context of power hierarchies and the inherent nature of knowledge creation.


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