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Wednesday 10 September 2014

Knowledge as construction

The present series of articles is not in response to the article by Prof. Carlo Fonseka on “The differences between the Arts and the Sciences that appeared in “The Island” on the 6th of September 2014. However, it touches on certain matters that Prof. Fonseka mentions in his article, especially regarding science as a discovery as opposed to creation and Einstein’s work as a refinement of Newton’s Physics. I am more interested in knowledge in general and I approach the subject as a Sinhala Buddhist brought up in that culture as a child and returned to Sinhala Buddhism after roaming as a student of western science and Marxism. Some learned people may consider Marxism as a Science (Western) but Popper would not agree with them as the latter is of the view that Marxism cannot be falsified thus violating his criterion that identifies science being consisting of theories that can be falsified. The irony is that in Sri Lanka there are learned people who are Popperians, Marxists and Scientists at the same time!

However, I must admit that my Bududahama is not be the same as that of Budunvahanse and I believe that only another Budunvahanse and not even an Arhant can “know” the Bududahama of Budunvahanse. Arhant Mugalan Thera wanted to go in search of the end of the world clearly demonstrating that the Ven. Arhant’s Bududahama was different from that of Budunvahanse. My Bududahama is my interpretation or better my creation and it is unique to me. In my Bududahama all knowledge is due to “Avidya” whatever it means and knowledge is constructed due to “Avidya”. The concept of “I” that has been created due to “Avidya” is the biggest stumbling block in attaining Nibbana and “I” believe that in attaining Nibbana “one” “discards” all knowledge that had been created through “Samsaric” journey.   

I start with Avijja paccaya sankara in Paticca Samuppada however, I must admit that I do not what is meant by avijja for the simple reason that Paticca Samuppada according to the commentary is applicable to Arhants as well up to Phassa paccaya vedana. Thus if we believe in the commentary then even the Arhants also “possess” avijja and it could be concluded that “avijja” does not mean not knowing of four noble truths. However, we could ignore the commentary and state that Paticca Samuppada is not applicable to Arhants. Then one could question as to how Arhants live until Parinibbana is attained or Nirupadisesa Nibbana is attained, as they also feel (vedana) as a result of contact (phassa). The problem is to explain Sopadisesa Nibbana that Arhants have attained while they live in this “bhava”. It may be that “vijja” in this instance means something else and we may have to create a meaning for “vijja” consistent with other knowledge. In this connection I am reminded of the word “seppadavijja” that had been used by Yagu Kauranas or people of Yaksha tribe.

There is no satisfactory explanation of knowledge in western philosophy to my knowledge and it is said that Wittgenstein gave up his quest for knowledge of knowledge as he could not come out with an explanation on what is meant by knowledge. There are some people who attempt to distinguish between knowledge and myth and it is in this category we find the western philosophers of science or philosophers of western science. To be precise they should be called western philosophers of western science. In Sinhala Buddhism relative to me knowledge is all myth or “lies” or “musa” (false) as stated in Dvyatanupassana Sutta. As far as Arhants are concerned according to this Sutta the concepts, theories etc., knowledge in general of  “prthagjanas” are lies.            

What appears below is an excerpt from Dvyatanupassana Sutta translated by Ven. Thanissaro Thera.
"Now, if there are any who ask, 'Would there be the right contemplation of dualities in yet another way?' they should be told, 'There would.' 'How would that be?' 'Whatever is considered as "This is true" by the world with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk, is rightly seen as it actually is with right discernment by the noble ones as "This is false"': this is one contemplation. 'Whatever is considered as "This is false" by the world with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk, is rightly seen as it actually is with right discernment by the noble ones as "This is true"': this is a second contemplation. For a monk rightly contemplating this duality in this way — heedful, ardent, & resolute — one of two fruits can be expected: either gnosis right here & now, or — if there be any remnant of clinging-sustenance — non-return."

However, it does not mean that we have to discard all our knowledge as lies (or false) created by the “prthagjanas”. There are Sammuthies (not sammuthi sathya) or conventions (not conventional truths) which we have adopted and an individual may belong to one or more sammuthies as the case may be. Some of the sammuthies may be in contradiction with each other but many people are not bothered of the contradictions and may belong to contradictory sammuthies. The western science is only one such sammuthi, and often the western scientists belong to other sammuthies as well. Some of these other sammuthies may be in contradiction with western science but that is immaterial as far as the western scientists are concerned. It is due to this one could be a Popperian, Marxist and western scientist at the same period.

The knowledge is constructed by any individual (prthagjana) relative to the five sense organs, mind and the culture of the individual. The cultures are also creations of human beings and mind is the biggest and the worst construction of the mind. The mind is constructed by the mind itself, and how it is being done is explained in the article “Sinhala Bauddha Manasa” that can be downloaded from the kalaya website (

In Sinhala Buddhist culture as constructed by me all knowledge is false and what we have to attain is a status of no knowledge or anna and not nnana though the latter is useful in living until one attains Nibbana. This is in contradiction to many systems of knowledge that consider certain things to be true while others are considered to be myths. The problem in these systems is to weed out myths from truth or to identify what is truth. The western philosophers of western science have devised various schemes to distinguish western science from other systems. There are some western scientists and their philosophers who consider western science to be true or as a system that approaches truth.

However, Prof. Carlo Fonseka is not of that view and he states in the above mentioned article that “this does not mean that the discoveries made by scientists necessarily represent the absolute and final truth about the matters in question. Just think of Newtonian physics which held sway for about 300 years. The work of Einstein demonstrated that it did not represent the absolute truth about the physical nature of the natural world. Einstein’s work refined Newton’s physics. That is why some critics of science say that the discoveries of science are no more than useful fictions which enable us to make sense of the natural world.” However he is of the opinion that Einstein’s work refined Newton’s Physics and (western) scientists make discoveries. We will discuss these in the next installment.  (To be continued) 

Nalin De Silva