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Sunday 4 March 2012

On so called scientific knowledge – XIII

I would like to end this series entitled “on so called scientific knowledge” and write on other related topics such as why western science was born in the west after the sixteenth century and not in China as questioned by Joseph Needham. His pathetic answer was it was the absence of Capitalism in China that prevented construction (creation) of western science in China. However, Copernicus and Galileo lived before the advent of Capitalism and western science and technology only helped the establishment of capitalism. Then there are other questions such as Why Catholic Chinthanaya failed to create western science as such? Why Buddhism is not scientific in the sense science is used after the sixteenth century? Why Vijja (as in Vijja Udapadi say) as used in Buddhism or better Buddha Deshana is not science as used in the west after the sixteenth century? There are many educated Buddhists including Maha Sangha who believe that Kalama Sutta has the characteristics of the “spirit of western science”. However most of these people do not pay attention to Part II of the Sutta where it is said that Vinnus (loosely speaking those who act to lead a satisfactory life here and also after death in the next bhava or do not engage in activities that prevent them such life) are to be followed. However Vinnus are also culture dependent and in this culture imposed by the west through schools, universities, media, it would be difficult to identify Vinnus in the above mentioned sense. Now we have certificated Vinnus following whom would not make life satisfactory in a Buddhist sense. Also I am of the opinion that the readers are tired after going through more than a dozen of instalments in a series of articles to a newspaper. However, before closing this series I must state that though there is no scientific method as such that distinguishes western science from other systems of knowledge that have been constructed by human beings, the former differs from the latter due to the Chinthanaya which western knowledge is based on. I have discussed most of these in Sinhala and an interested reader may find my views (though there is no such person to say my views, mine etc.) on these topics in the two websites and

In the present series of articles I have dealt with the method or absence of a method in western science, reliability and pragmatism, utilitarianism, bankrupt notion of empiricism with the western scientists who look for theories or “science” claiming that appearances cannot be relied upon but have nothing else than so called appearances whether they are called experimental or observational results to check their treasured theories. Moreover, there are no pure observations or perceptions independent of conceptions in spite of some of the western Philosophers such as Russell labouring to show that there are “pure perceptions”. One cannot think of bluishness without the concept of bluishness and concepts are very important though they play hell with our “understanding” of Nibbana. In Buddhism we speak of nama rupa, and there are no rupa without nama, rupa in paticcasamuppada arising internally and not externally. I have explained this in the last two articles in Vidusara, which are available in the archives of the newspaper or in the kalaya website. It has to be emphasised that rupa or external objects in western “science” are not the same as rupa in Buddhism, which are internally constructed with nama. In this last instalment I would like to concentrate on abstractness in western science.

Mathematics is the most abstract of western knowledge though there is western abstract art created in the Einsteinian paradigm in the twentieth century. Though western science claims to be empirical it is not so. The best example is current Theoretical Physics whose theories are not “testable” even with large reactors that have been constructed in the west. As western Physics is the most advanced discipline in western sciences this cannot be treated lightly and ignored. Western Physics is the most abstract system of the western sciences and abstractness is something that Galileo contributed to western system of knowledge in the seventeenth century. The westerners had to go into abstract theorizing when they were confronted with knowledge that reached the west with or without facilitation by the Arab traders. Now it is a well known fact that the Bharat Mathematicians and Astronomers in the eighth century had known the motion of the earth around the Sun. However, they did not abandon the notion that the sun went round the earth, as in Astrology it was the motion round the earth that was important. To them they were relative motions and they knew when to use what. Now the question is how they came to know that the sun went round the earth. It is very unlikely that they observed this motion on the surface of the earth with their eyes or instruments such as telescopes. The Bharat and Sinhala people had knowledge of lenses as evident from the excavations in Abhayagiriya, and there is recorded a story of a Sinhala Bhikku using binoculars to look at another ship while being on a sea voyage. It is also known that Galileo gained knowledge of telescopes from the East. However, motion of the earth round the sun is a different kettle of fish and it is very likely that the Bharat Astronomers had this knowledge through Bhavana or Yoga exercises.

When this knowledge reached Galileo through Copernicus who is credited by the western historians of science with the “discovery” of the heliocentric motion of the earth he had no experience in Bhavana or Yoga exercises and had difficulty in absorbing this knowledge to the new Greek Judaic Christian Chinthanaya. The heliocentric motion of the earth is not something observable and it was not concrete by any stretch of imagination. In fact imagination had to be stretched so much to give rise to abstract thinking in western science. When Galileo commenced to teach motion of the earth round the sun he was asked by the Pope to demonstrate it and was ordered not to teach without first demonstrating. Galileo was asked by the learned people of Italy in the seventeenth century why apples fell at the root of the apple tree as the earth was moving invariably with the apple tree. Their argument was if the earth moved, then during the time the apple left the tree and fell to the ground, the earth would have moved through a certain distance with the apple tree and there was no way that the apple would have fallen at the root of the apple tree. Since the apple fell at the root of the tree it meant that there was no motion of the earth. This was good logic (reduction ad absurdum) empirical and what not. It was concrete as Catholic Chinthanaya was concrete and there was nothing that Galileo could state to defend his position within concrete empirical rational (though not rationalism in a western Philosophical sense) paradigm and chinthanaya. It was the moment of glory of Galileo to move away from empirical concrete theories and formulate abstract general theories or explanations.

Galileo introduced the notion of relative motion and stated that only relative motion is observable. What he said essentially was that the earth moved not only with the apple tree but with the apple and also with the Pope or the observer and hence all of them shared the motion of the earth. Thus the apple and the observer moved with the earth, say horizontally, and there was no horizontal relative motion of the apple relative to the earth or the pope. Thus the apple did not move away from the apple tree or its root horizontally and though it moved it could not be observed by an observer on the earth, at least in the vicinity of the apple tree. The only relative motion of the apple with respect to the observer was the downward vertical motion, as neither the surface nor the Pope moved “vertically”. Now did Galileo demonstrate that only relative motion was observable? Never, and it is no wonder that the Pope imprisoned Galileo for teaching material that cannot be observed or sense experienced. It was a different science that Galileo created in a different Chinthanaya. While Catholic Chinthanaya was concrete and empirical the new Greek Judaic Christian Chinthanaya was abstract and general at least in theory. Te western scientific theories whether in Physics or Physiology are general and abstract. They do not theorize for individual objects whether living or not and in Pisa what Galileo demonstrated or attempted to demonstrate was that bodies dropped from the same height simultaneously fell to the ground at the same time irrespective of their mass, colour, shape, density, smell etc. In other words he considered general objects and not concrete objects. Of course he added an element of cheating by not dropping a feather and a stone, say. Even in western medicine theories general patients are considered and teaching in all the faculties in western universities in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are based on general theories and not on concrete theories. These theories are invariably abstract those in Physics being the most abstract.

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva