This is a reflective article targeting the following comment made by Sivin, serving as the term paper for In Dialogue with Nature.
“So long as there is variation of such magnitude in the balance between the cognitive, practical, normative, and social dimensions of science, such words as “international” and “universal” are out of place. When applied to the narrow, rigorous technical realm of scientific cognition alone, they [“they” refers to “internationality” and “universality”] constitute a modest claim indeed.”
“People there considered the idea of objective knowledge without wisdom, without moral or esthetic significance, grotesque.”
Through history books, one could discover that the development of human technologies includes a process of combining knowledge from diversified individuals or societies, which requires universality to a certain degree. In July 2020, a Nature Cancer published editorial, titled as No Borders in Science, claimed that “Government policies that threaten the international mobility of biomedical students, researchers and physicians stand to imperil scientific progress and innovation at a time when supporting them is paramount”, and we should protect this mobility in order to “fortify our countries”, stressing the importance of internationality in another level. However, researchers sometimes have different ideas, including Nathan Sivin, who believes internationality and universality “constitute a modest claim” in “the narrow, rigorous technical realm of scientific cognition alone”. In this essay, not only will the “objective knowledge and empirical testing” be evaluated, but also will the reasons behind the departure of ideas on internationality and universality be analysed.
2. The Attributes of Objective Knowledge and Empirical Testing
We know the Scientific Revolution includes a transformation of our knowledge of the external world, and we could discuss the attributes of objective knowledge and empirical testing through this very transformation. Before the transformation, when people want to illustrate how they react with exterior nature, they would focus on the subjective experiences and the established standard of moral or aesthetic views. The Revolution elevated the importance of “is it true”, and the truthfulness does not need to correspond to our standpoints of beauty or good except the thorough empirical testing, like Kepler’s Law pointing out that the celestial orbits do not compound of uniform circular motion.
According to Sivin, many people take such knowledge, lacking “wisdom and moral or aesthetic significance” grotesque, and it seems to have contradiction against Poincaré’s notion that studying nature is a pleasure and the yielded facts are not only useful but also beautiful. In other words, the influences of beauty cannot compromise the integrity of truthfulness and vice versa. Sivin mentioned the concept of “inhibiting factor” in explaining this phenomenon, and we could try to elaborate further. As mentioned before, people intend to evaluate the illustration of physical rules by their sense experiences. It is possible that they perceive those tightly connected with the observable surrounding as beautiful ones; in other words, their expectation of knowledge lies in the direct utilisation of them in physical or spiritual life. When some objective knowledge, like the complex mathematical formulae, becomes less related, their interest is diminished as well.
For the scientists, however, their definition of beautifulness goes beyond that of the others. The idea of objective knowledge and the acquisition of them are nowhere near grotesque, and the universality and internationality provided could bring more achievement.
3. The Contribution of Universality and Internationality
When talking about universality and internationality, we could first focus on the realm of scientific cognition alone, and then move on to the application side. Sivin stated that, even with this restriction, the concept of universality and internationality constitute a modest claim. However, this statement does not seem that concrete as we track back through history.
The objective knowledge ensures its legitimacy by erasing the need for designated authority, as one could verify the claim through the empirical testing. This is part of the source of its universality and internationality, as it provides consistency and accuracy cross society or culture. According to what Sivin indicated, it is not enough, as the “true universality would require modern technology to coexist with and serve cultural diversity rather than standardising it out of existence.” Hence, the question is whether the diffusion of science cognition alters cultural values so drastically that it eliminates the diversity completely.
It is impossible for the dissemination of scientific cognition to leave no mark at all, for sure. However, rather than worrying about novel ideas replacing the traditional ones, it is better to take it as a process of consolidation. Take Europe as an example, with the technology of producing gunpowder originated in China, the numeric system from India, and the letters of credit from the middle east, scientists in Europe made astonishing accomplishment while maintaining their unique culture; as for China, the oldest tradition like Wuxing and Yinyang is preserved until today while embracing the western technology. Both represent the consolidation provided by the universality.
This harmonious unification is not something coincidence. The social and historical origins are variant, but the notion of a universal and value-free modern science is not that wishful. The values of science, as Professor Loucas Christophorou would describe, are “rationality, verification of knowledge, discovery and correction of error, respect and acceptance of the proven fact, unification and coherence of scientific knowledge, cooperation” and the uniquely multidimensional one, “humanism”. These characteristics make sure that science is nothing invasive, and it shows respect to the diverse culture.
4. The Drift from Consolidation
We have shown the consolidation provided by the universality within the realm of science cognition alone. The reality gets more complex when we include the application of the cognition where social factors are greatly in consideration, and the disparities between parties are real. Things like “profound differences between the character of modern scientific activity in the contemporary People’s Republic of China and United States” show that such words as international and universal are “out of place”. It looks like a hard drift from the consolidation we just mentioned, and it is reasonable to believe that with this drift, the universality loses its meaning.
Under such circumstances, let us not forget the cornerstone of these scientific activities, that is the fundamental rules of scientific cognition, and their nature of universality is unchanged. Even if each party has their own way to approach the application of these rules, the underlying universality is unlikely to be completely gone because it does not require the exact same path of development: as long as there is a flow of information and parties could learn something from others progress, the universality is there.
To summarise, it is worth trying to categorise the knowledge gained through empirical testing of hypotheses into the fundamental rules and the application of them in real life. Within the realm of pure scientific exploration, it is safe to say that the ideas of universality and internationality are available and highly involved, considering the consolidated nature of modern science. On the other side, the applications of such exploration are highly affected by the variation in the balance between “the cognitive, practical, normative, and social dimensions of science”, therefore cause the significant disparities among scientific approaches, rendering some to claim the modest achievement of universality and internationality through empirical testing. Judging the contribution of empirical testing solely on this perspective could lead one to consider the universality to be grotesque; however, by doing this, they are ignoring the connection under the surface. That is to say, while we can divide the knowledge into two categories, it is essential to remember that one is the cornerstone of the other, as the apparent modest achievement of universality enables us to derive more crucial truths and contributes to help expedite the progression of modern science.
In conclusion, the universality provided by empirical testing of hypotheses is neither a modest achievement nor grotesque. The use of this method per se contributes wisdom as it is the very basis of our thriving modern science.
Carson, Rachel, “Silent Spring”, 1990.
Christophorou, Loucas G. “The Universality of Science: Limits and Needs.” International Council for Science. International Council for Science (ICSU) European members annual meeting, 2021, www.academyofathens.gr/sites/default/files/The%20Universality%20of%20Science%20-%20Limits%20and%20Needs.pdf.
Lindberg, David, “The Beginning of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450(Second Edition)”, The University of Chicago Press, 1992
Nature Publishing Group. “No Borders in Science.”, Nature News, 21 July 2020, www.nature.com/articles/s43018-020-0098-3.
Sivin, Nathan. “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—or Didn’t It?”, 1982.