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Friday 30 September 2011

On so called scientific knowledge IV

The apples and coconuts fall to the earth because of gravitation according to Newton. During Newton’s time the concept of force was associated with pulling and pushing. One could pull or push an object by using a force, which is applied through a rope or a pole or some such object, if not hands or other parts of the body are used directly. In other words a force, not a refined concept then, could be applied on an object only with another object that touched the first. However, unfortunately for Newton he could not show to the others the rope or the object that pulled the coconut or the apple to the earth. When some of his contemporaries wanted to see the rope Newton could only say it was action at a distance. Einstein had not formulated his special theory of relativity then and there was no upper limit on the speed with which “communication” between objects took place. Thus Newton was of the view that it was action at a distance instantly. The earth instantly exerted a force, the gravitational force, on the coconut that made the latter to come down once it was released.

The so called gravitational field was a later introduction following Maxwell who introduced the concept of field in connection with what is now known as electromagnetism. With the introduction of the gravitational field it was possible to describe how an object exerted the gravitational force on a distant second object without directly touching it. However it did not answer the questions that were later asked by Earnest Mach the Austrian Physicist cum Philosopher. Neither the gravitational force nor the gravitational field were not sensory perceptible and the question was whether gravitation existed as a “phenomenon”. In other words it became a problem in Ontology or theory of existence. Though Ontology and Epistemology are considered to belong to different branches in western Philosophy for Buddhists it is not so. It is knowledge of existence that we deal with and it is not possible to draw a line between epistemology and ontology.

How does one prove that “things” exist? One could say that sensory perceptible objects do exist while “objects” that are not sensory perceptible do not exist. Existence is used here in the conventional sense whatever it means. If one defines existence that way then not only Natha Deviyo but also the almighty God of Abrahamic religions does not exist. However, one could say an “object” that is sensory perceptible to at least a few human beings does exist, and if we believe the statements of some people that they have seen various gods then we could say that gods exist. However, others may say that the people who claim to have “seen” gods (gods experienced not necessarily with eyes) are affected by hallucination and they perceive “things” that do not exist. However this begs the question as we have already assumed that what these people perceive do not exist. The question is how we do know that those “objects” “phenomena” experienced by them do not exist? Let us leave the gods and come down to earth with or without gravitation to decide whether gravitation exists. Obviously not even Newton had felt gravitation at that time, and people such as the experimental Chemist whom was referred to in the previous instalment began to feel gravitation only after generations of students had been taught that coconuts are attracted to earth by the gravitational force.

Why did educated people before Einstein formulated his General Theory of Relativity and many such people even after, assume that gravitation existed? In other words how did they know that gravitation existed? It was not because they felt gravitation but simply because gravitation was able to explain why coconuts and apples fell to the ground. Now falling of coconuts was sensory perceptible unlike devivaru to almost all people and gravitation though sensory not perceptible explained a sensory perceptible phenomenon. It may be assumed that until a better definition is formulated, as far as non sensory perceptible “objects”, “phenomena” are concerned one way to show that they exist in the conventional sense is to show that some sensory perceptible phenomena are explained in terms of the relevant non sensory perceptible “objects” and “phenomena” in a consistent manner. Then of course the existence of non sensory perceptible “phenomena” “objects” is assumed if the animals are sensitive to those objects. However one could object to the latter by saying that even there the human beings explain the behaviour of animals on the assumption that such and such non sensory perceptible “objects” “phenomena” exist for the animals to behave in that particular manner. In other words there exist sensory perceptible objects and non sensory perceptible objects in the conventional sense, the sensory perceptible objects being those that could be “felt” with the five sense organs (in this section mind is deliberately omitted from been considered as the sixth sense organ though the Buddhists may object to it, as the western scientists and others of their ilk would not entertain a world grasped only with the mind) and of course with the mind (without mind nothing can be grasped), while the non sensory perceptible objects are those the humans assume to exist in order to explain sensory perceptible “objects” and “phenomena”.

We find dogs reacting in very strange ways when we do not feel anything extra ordinary. The dogs are used to “sense” the trail of a criminal and this “phenomenon” is explained by claiming that they (dogs not the criminals) are sensitive to smells that the humans usually cannot sense. There is no direct experience for the human beings of the smells or the sounds that the dogs are sensitive to, and we believe that those sounds and smells exist because that explains the behaviour of the dogs under certain circumstances. With the help of existing western Physics one could say that the dogs are sensitive to certain sound frequencies to which the humans are not sensitive. It is said that the some birds and fish are sensitive to magnetism or magnetic fields though the humans have no sense organ that would enable them to “feel” magnetism. Even though the human cannot feel magnetism through their sense organs they assume that magnetism and objects with magnetic properties exist that attract metals. People would have probably observed that certain objects had the ability to attract objects such as metals and if we go by the western thinking one person long long ago would have explained this phenomenon of attraction using the concept of magnetism. In Sinhala magnets are called “kantham” derived from kantha most probably of Sanskrit origin, meaning to attract as in the case of suriyakantha, the flower attracted to sun, and of course “kantha pakshaya” or women to whom men are attracted. No “scientist” in the ancient or modern world has explained this attraction using a non perceptible concept representing something that exists in women but the poets, not sparing Bhikkus such as Ven. Thotagamuwe Rahula Thera, have been busy from time immemorial describing the attractive features of the ladies. In a sense it is good that no “scientist” has been able to come out with a dry non sensory perceptible concept to describe this attractive feature for we would have lost all those beautiful poems on women by Rahula Hamuduruwan Vahansela and Sarachchandras not to mention the Bharath and other poets. How many poets other than a few postmodernist pundits who want to show off that they are third rate imitators, have written poems on magnets? Incidentally I use Bharath not to mean present India or an ancient India that did not exist before the British came to our part of the world. In my vocabulary Dambadiva means that land mass north of Sri Lanka or Helaya or Lanka, that existed before the Aryans migrated and Bharath means an area not necessarily coinciding with Dambadiva, after the Vedic culture was established by the Aryans mixing different cultures until the British conquered and founded India. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva