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Saturday 10 September 2011

On so called scientific knowledge – II

We are concerned with knowledge and naturally two questions spring to mind. Now that sentence itself gives rise to another basic problem. Is it spring to mind or spring in the mind? I am not familiar with the usage in English but I am inclined to think that the first expression is in accordance with the English practice, whereas the second is the usual way of expressing it in Sinhala. In Sinhala one would say manasehi pena nagina prashana and not manasata peminena prashana. It is needless to say these differences make learning English difficult for Sinhala children and even in my old age I am still learning how to express myself in English. Leaving apart these differences in the two cultures for the time being I would mention that the two questions are what is knowledge and knowledge of what. There is no satisfactory definition of knowledge (there is no satisfactory definition of anything for that matter and definitions are involved in linear thinking) and we may formulate some of the auxiliary questions associated with the above two questions, namely is knowledge discovered or is it constructed and in either case who discovers or constructs knowledge, is there anything called true knowledge, does knowledge consists only of true propositions, what is meant by truth, what are illusions, delusions and hallucinations, are all propositions illusions, what are myths, etc. I tend to think the list of questions is very long and I would not attempt to answer all such questions, for the simple reason that the editor and above all the readers would not entertain the idea.

As I have said I am a failed western Theoretical Physicist and perhaps a failed Sinhala Buddhist “academic” as well. However, I tend to think that I have many things in common with Sinhala Buddhist culture than with western science. Sometimes it is said that western science is not a dogma, and the propositions or theories are only tentative. It is also said that according to Popper, in western science theories are falsifiable, and that the scientists attempt to falsify theories and western science advances through this process. Then there are others who claim that in western science theories gradually approach the truth though the theories may be approximate with respect to truth at best at present.

Even those who have an inclination to consider western science as non dogma have a tendency to treat non science as myth or non sense. That itself is a dogma as according to them western science is not a myth nor an illusion, delusion, hallucination. Some of those, if not all, ‘tentative theories” could have been myths, and not to treat them as myths while considering propositions in other systems as myths is not only dogmatic but hegemonic as well.

It is clear from the literature on knowledge, the western philosophical tradition is interested in the knowledge of an external world that exists independent of observers. With or without human observers, in the western tradition the animals who until recently did not have minds according to western biology which discovered the minds of the animals few years ago, are not considered as observers, the so called external world exists. Thus it is the knowledge of an external world independent of human observers that the westerners are interested in. Now what is meant by the knowledge of the external world, provided of course that we know that there is an external world? One could easily see that we go in a cycle and it is not consistent with Aristotelian logic which is two valued twofold and linear. In the Aristotelian scheme one is not allowed to define terms using the very same words and with respect to knowledge one is faced with the problem of defining knowledge in terms knowledge.

In order to know an external world one has to have knowledge of an external world that exists independent of human observers. Without knowing that there is an external world it is futile to attempt to have knowledge of the external world. Thus in order to have knowledge of an external world one should first know that an external world exists independent of human observers. Thus even before one could define the word knowledge, if it is possible at all, one has to know that an external world exists. Knowing that an external world exists independent of human observers, then to have knowledge of the external world in the western tradition, one should be able to both describe and explain the world.

One can say an object called the sun rises from a direction called the east and then having journeyed through the sky sets in the direction called the west. It is a description of what is believed to be happening in the external world and to that extent it is knowledge of the external world. Similarly one could say that the coconuts and apples fall to the ground or stones thrown upwards fall to the ground. Though these constitute descriptive knowledge of the so called external world, knowledge does not end there. Humans are very often not satisfied with description and want explanations. Explanations lead to theory and they in turn enable people to predict.

Now before we proceed, can we say that the description of sun’s journey constitutes knowledge? Is it an illusion? Is it a false interpretation of a phenomenon? Does the sun go round the earth? I believe that many of the educated would consider it as an illusion. However, for many ordinary people such as me it is a description of part of the world whether the existence of the world is a reality or not. It is a description according to some observers, and with respect to them the sun moves relative to the earth, while the earth remains at rest. However, one could always ask the following question. What is the object relative to which the earth is at rest? While people such as me are happy with the description that the sun moves around the earth and prepared to accept that it is (conventional) knowledge, there are others who are usually educated who would say that the earth goes around the sun without observing any motion of the earth with their eyes. Perhaps the educated people see the world through the eyes of the other people, and that may be one of the reasons that they are fond of quoting others.

Even those educated people who would consider the motion of the sun around the earth as an illusion or a false (not true) interpretation of a phenomenon and declare that the earth goes around the sun would not consider gravity as an illusion. Having said that the earth goes around the sun some would want to explain this description of a certain phenomenon. Though it is said that it was Copernicus who “discovered” that the earth moves around the sun it had been known to Bharath people for centuries, but if we allow Galileo to take the credit for propagating this “discovery” then the credit for explaining the phenomenon goes to Newton who is supposed to have “discovered” his universal theory of gravitation. In this case we see description being followed by explanation and Galileo and Newton or Copernicus and Newton form an ideal pair who combined in this game of description and explanation. As far as most of the educated people are concerned the theory of gravitation is not an illusion and they would vow that the coconuts fall to the ground because of gravitation. After all Newton’s theory of gravitation belongs to western Physics and it is still taught in our schools and universities in the Physics classes, not to mention the tuition classes of various sirs.

The theory of gravitation has become scientific knowledge, and when I asked a Cambridge educated senior lecturer in western Chemistry, after all Newton was at Cambridge, how he knew that gravitation exists, he said that he could feel it. Gravitation had become so much empirical to this Cambridge Doctor of Philosophy; he declared that he had sensory perception of gravity. Naturally I was interested in “discovering” the sense organ with which he felt gravitation. However, I was disappointed when I came to know that he has only the sense organs that the others have. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva