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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Crosstalk: What’s Necessary and Sufficient for Science to Thrive, Over the Years

Crosstalk is our monthly column on the history, culture and processes of science.

"A cornerstone of the philosophy of logical reasoning and central to the scientific method are the ideas of necessity and sufficiency – deceptively simple ever so easily confused. We often confuse necessary statements to imply sufficiency." writes Sunil Laxman.

Photo: Sounion, Greece. 
The Wire

For example, oxygen is necessary for life but not sufficient for life. In contrast, a sirloin beef steak is sufficient to provide all nutrients humans need but it isn’t necessary. For sufficiency, only the necessary elements satisfying that particular condition need to be present. Rarely do necessity and sufficiency together provide a powerful set of conditions for a statement to be true.

Let’s explore criteria throughout recorded history that have been necessary and sufficient for a culture of science to flourish. While humans as a species have thrived through the collection and utilisation of knowledge, there have only been a few instances in history where a culture of science has flourished in specific societies. While individual conditions enabling this have been discussed, a closer inspection suggests four necessary conditions, which – when all are satisfied – are sufficient for science to thrive.

  1. The existence of surplus resources, allowing individuals or groups to pursue curiosity-driven inquiry
  2. A prevailing culture within that society allowing a free exchange of ideas, and questioning of dogma
  3. A society exposed to a variety of ideas
  4. A maximum use of human resources, where there is a critical mass of educated people who can congregate, discuss and critique ideas.
Throughout history, there have been many societies with instances of some of these conditions being met, resulting in scientific advances. This is not sufficient to catalyse a larger culture of scientific progress in that society. However, these four conditions have been all met only twice in history, in two regions of the world, and have come close to being satisfied in two other instances.

Ancient Greece
The first case of satisfying most, but not all, of these conditions was in classical Greece, particularly Athens. Athens became wealthy by controlling trade in the Mediterranean through its powerful navy and mercantile fleet, and through mines of silver. This meant surplus resources for the pursuit of art and science. The second condition, of a free exchange of ideas, was enabled by the then-unique concept of public debate in Athenean democracy along with the setting up of academies (by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others), where students could openly debate ideas. This helped the development of logic as a philosophy.

Athens benefited by location, collecting different ideas from North Africa, Asia Minor (particularly the Persian empire stretching east), and the tribes of Europe. All of this boosted scientific endeavours. However, despite democracy, the utilisation of human resources was sub-optimal in Greece. Only Greeks were free citizens who could choose their professions, and every one else was a slave with few options. The Greek population was small, and intense rivalries limited long term stability and prosperity (resulting in (1) vanishing). Given this, the growth of science and art in Greece was itself remarkable.

Source: The Wire

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