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A PhD for the love of wisdom

Jithin Sunny

What is a PhD – is it a certificate or a way of life? What is the significance of adorning the black robe? Is there a connection between science and philosophy? Is there a historical background to it? In this article, Jithin pays tribute to the doctorate and how it can drive away naïve realism and bring substantive reasoning into our lives. He pays homage to the great minds —Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Whitehead and Einstein —true lovers of knowledge.

Source Pixabay Images
Source Pixabay Images 

During the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greece underwent a cultural transformation. Curiosity, problem solving and scientific counter were at their peak. A methodological approach to critical thinking was developed. Verbal communication was converted into written transcripts and as people’s intellect developed, they acquired new beliefs and assumptions. Even in today’s modern world, the process of learning is based on the knowledge transfer system from the rebellious age of Socrates. This was the origin of philosophy, the way of contemplation. The word philosophy has its roots in the ancient Greek language – philo’ means love’ and sophos’ stands for wisdom’.

Science, in its true sense, is philosophical. Alfred North Whitehead, an 18th century mathematician and philosopher, defined learning as consisting of three steps: romance, precision and generalization. It is implicit that the first step does not involve critical thinking. At this stage, the person is curious about a problem; the narrative is based on a story that has been planted in the mind. In the second step, the theory starts to acquire a proper shape. A significant amount of time is now spent on critical thinking, conceptualization and evaluation. When this ends, in the third step, the mind returns to its original state of imagination. However, this time, the goal is to apply the developed theory further. It is through this process that the existing inconsistencies in inherited ideas are challenged, and theories that do not make much sense are questioned. It is through this process that a philosophical thought opposes the blind adherence to the working of nature.

A tight historical link exists between science and philosophy. One of the most celebrated physicists of all times Albert Einstein, in his letter to a young African-American philosopher Robert Thornton in 1944, states thatA knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion— the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

The two fields of science and philosophy are intricately woven together, so much so that even to perceive them differently can contribute negatively to the proposed scientific critique. It is through philosophy that science can formulate novel theories. Lucie Laplane, a philosopher in biology who also works in the field of cancer stem cells, in her recent opinion in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, states that seminal philosophies have greatly impacted modern science. An example is in establishing the distinction between the self and the non-self, especially in the field of auto-immunity, which is rather vague. The self/non-self critique has challenged various existing theories in this field along with tumour growth and cellular interactions. Similarly, the established narrative of an organism’s homogenous-self has been questioned. In this case, the existence of a symbiotic community harbouring in everyone — one that is recognised but not eliminated by the immune system — is a theory derived from philosophical investigation, motivated by the idea of oneness. 

At this juncture, it is critical to understand the true meaning of philosophy beyond the doctorate. For everyone embarking upon this journey to become a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), the black robe is a symbol of dignity, honour, wisdom and justice. The Platonic academy in ancient Greece would have required a black robe just to enter. Plato believed that once a person wears the black robe, he/​she should no longer think of this transitory world; instead, they should expand their knowledge beyond what is seen. The world as others see is, henceforth, dead to them. At that very instance, the PhD becomes a way of life. Such reflections could be seen amongst the ancient Indian Sramanas who were inclined to pursue the truth and hold it above all else. Their communications were based on philosophical critique and their scientific endeavours were deeply motivated by it. It is only by a thorough philosophical introspection that altruism can be included in scientific pursuits.

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